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Donald Swift to Receive International Sedimentology Medal

Donald Swift

Donald Swift, eminent professor and Slover Professor of Oceanography at Old Dominion University, will be the 2010 recipient of the Francis J. Pettijohn Medal for Sedimentology, one of the top awards given by the international SEPM, Society for Sedimentary Geology.

The award has special significance for Swift, who studied with Pettijohn at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1960s. "Francis Pettijohn's Sedimentary Rocks course was a turning point in my life," Swift said. "Pettijohn was one of the giants in the generation before me. Because of our connection, it is especially an honor to receive this award in his name."

SEPM (the acronym comes from the organization's former name, Society for Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists) gives the Pettijohn Medal annually to a person who has a record of outstanding contributions in sedimentary geology, including all aspects of sedimentology and stratigraphy.

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Office of Naval Research, other agencies and private industry has taken Swift throughout the world to pursue interests in shallow marine sediments, sedimentary dynamics and shallow marine stratigraphy. He has done work recently in Wyoming and California, as well as on Virginia's Eastern Shore. For example, he and his students analyzed the depositional fabric of storm and flood beds of the Northern California Shelf.

Swift's 25 years on the ODU faculty has come in two segments. He served as an associate professor and Slover Chair in oceanography from 1968-71, and returned to the university in 1986. Between time he worked in private industry and as a marine geologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Two decades ago, Swift received SEPM's F.P. Shepard Medal for excellence in marine geology.

Pettijohn, who died in 1999, was on the geology faculty at Johns Hopkins when Swift was pursuing a master's degree there. Pettijohn, often called the founder of modern sedimentology, wrote "Sedimentary Rocks," the standard text in the field. He also had the reputation of being a scientist who spent a lot of time outside the laboratory and classroom searching for geological evidence.

Studying with Pettijohn came at an opportune time for Swift. "I had fallen into the kind of doldrums that graduate students sometimes get to," the ODU professor said. "I was studying igneous metamorphic petrology, how rocks melt deep in the earth, and how the melts evolve to form other rocks, or erupt as lava. There was a lot of advanced chemistry to learn, physical chemistry and thermodynamics, which was tough going."

Then came Pettijohn's course. "I enjoyed his course. Sedimentary processes are much more contingent than those of deep rocks and melts, and, to me, much more interesting."

So at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Swift moved through the Ph.D. program in sediments and sedimentary rocks with enthusiasm. "I even got interested in chemistry again," he said.

"Pettijohn was a careful and precise scientist, but he was also a polymath. Unlike a 'jack of all trades who is a master of none,' he excelled across a broad range of geological and related subjects. He was a reserved and shy man, but he resonated with me."

Swift was notified in late August by Steven Driese, geology department chair at Baylor University and president of SEPM, of his selection for the Pettijohn Medal. Swift will receive the medal at SEPM's annual meeting in New Orleans next spring.

This is the second major SEPM award to go to an ODU geologist in recent years. Nora Noffke, a geobiologist and associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, received the organization's 2007 James Lee Wilson Award that is given in recognition of excellence in sedimentary geology by a young scientist.

This article was posted on: September 27, 2009

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