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University of Idaho
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Galapagos Volcano

From Moscow to Galapagos

By Amanda Cairo

Long flight hours will get you to the Galápagos Islands from Idaho, but for University of Idaho students, that trip can be as quick as a walk across campus -- if they’re signed up for a Dennis Geist geology class.

The recently named President of the Charles Darwin Foundation has devoted most of his volcanology and petrology research to the study of the Galápagos Islands, and because the islands are so well recognized and versatile, Geist uses his research in the classroom.

“It was a great opportunity to work with a top notch researcher who has so much experience in an amazing landscape,” says alum Marques Miller (’12). “He’s a great professor to work with and learn from.”

Miller’s experience in the classroom led him to a research expedition in the Galápagos Islands in 2010. Geist invited Miller on a Scripps’s Institute of Oceanography ship to study how magma generated in the Northern Galápagos Province is formed.

“The experience I gained in the Galápagos and the resulting presentations I gave were far more than I could ever hope to gain out of a traditional classroom,” says Miller, who also had the opportunity to present a poster at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting.

The Galápagos Islands are mostly known for being the site where Charles Darwin visited before he penned his seminal work, “On the Origin of Species,” which explains the process of natural selection and established the science of evolutionary biology. Beyond that though, Geist says so much of the island’s geology is undiscovered and relatively little is known of this unique archipelago.

“Working where people have not been, where there is zero knowledge base, is fascinating,” says Geist, who initially began his studies to determine the geological history of the islands and map distribution rocks of their underwater counterparts. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve really become interested in how the geology of the island affects the biodiversity and how plants and animals evolve.”

Geist has been a visiting geologist in the islands for the last 15 years and a member of the Charles Darwin Foundation, which undertakes research that supports conservation in the Galápagos, for about 10 years. Since 2008, he has served on the foundation’s board of directors.

“Dennis is the board’s only PhD and practicing scientist,” says Darwin Foundation board member, Barbara West. “He has a strong commitment to the Galápagos and the critical conservation science it needs.”

West also cited Geist’s considerable knowledge of the science being conducted on the islands, and his ability to work with multiple stakeholders, including the Ecuadorian government, as essential to conserving the islands’ environment and biodiversity.

“It is an enormous honor,” Geist says of being appointed president. “The Charles Darwin Research Station is a world-renowned institution and has an international presence. The foundation is dedicated to saving and protecting the unique biodiversity of the Galápagos.”

In addition, Geist has worked with University of Idaho students in Iceland, Greenland, Antarctica, the Andes, and even Idaho—researching volcanic eruptions and their tectonic origins.

Geist is not alone at the University in his studies in the Galápagos: Dr. Karen Harpp of the geology department is also an internationally recognized researcher on the islands. Several faculty members in the College of Natural Resources have also spent time conducting research and bringing students to the islands.

The concentration of experts is high enough to put the University of Idaho as one of the top universities in Galápagos Islands studies outside of Ecuador.

With his appoint as the foundation president, Geist can further foster the relationship between the University of Idaho and the Galápagos Islands and help future critical and inspiring research.