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Paleoceanography pioneer meets academic progeny at Indiana State

April 24, 2015

Like many higher education institutions, Indiana State University offers a seemingly revolving door of visiting experts from which students and the public can learn. A recent earth and environmental systems scholar, however, is notable for both his renowned expertise and "familial" connection to the university.

A pioneer in developing the field of paleoceanography -- or the study of the oceans' geologic past -- James Kennett spoke to Indiana State students on April 16 on the topic of "Evidence for the Younger Dryas Boundary Cosmic Impact 12,800 Years Ago and Its Environmental, Biotic and Human Consequences."

"You see him on Discovery Channel," said Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State. "He's the major pioneer in paleoceanography and literally wrote the book on marine geology that everyone used for decades."

The talk was part of the Earth and Environmental Systems seminar series that is also linked to a course. Students read literature related to the lecture beforehand and then are able to speak informally with the speaker and ask questions afterwards.

"Students and faculty don't often get the chance to sit down, chat and ask questions of someone of Jim Kennett's experience and caliber," Rathburn said. "Having such a well-known scientist here presenting new ideas and relating experiences with enthusiasm and energy is such a great opportunity for students."

Kennett, who is an emeritus professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, is also Rathburn's academic grandfather, as Rathburn studied under Bruce Corliss when Rathburn was a graduate student at Duke University. Corliss, who is now dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, was a graduate student under Kennett at Rhode Island.

"(Kennett) has all kinds of academic grandsons," Rathburn said, adding that Kennett probably has academic great-great-great grandchildren somewhere, given how impactful his career has been. In fact, the week after Kennett gave his talk, Ingrid Hendy, a well-known paleoceanographer from the University of Michigan, gave a talk at Indiana State about her research. Hendy also studied under Kennett, making her Rathburn's "academic aunt."

Graduating this spring is Rathburn's doctoral student Ashley Burkett -- herself a standout scholar who presented in the Indiana State lecture series a week before Kennett, speaking on the topic of "Geochemistry of Benthic Foraminifera from Pacific Methane Seeps" -- and is one of Kennett's newest great-grandchildren.

"On this line, I think Ashley is Corliss' only academic grandchild," Rathburn said.

When mention of Corliss' name is made to Kennett, one could easily confuse Kennett's pride for his former student's success with that of a biological parent.

"That was quite thrilling for me to see that accomplishment," Kennett said of Corliss' dean position.

After more than 50 years of publishing research on a variety of topics, seeing your legacy continued through scholars who further help our understanding is satisfying, Kennett said.

"You feel an accomplishment for understanding new things about the earth and how it functions. That's what drives science, of course, is making new discoveries. When all is said and done, after decades, the most satisfying experience is seeing your former students succeed -- in various ways. It gives me enormous pleasure," he said.

"That's the human thing at the end. I'm not at the end, but I'm rapidly approaching it. So it goes," he added with a laugh.

Kennett's talk at Indiana State shared the hypothesis that a fragmented comet hit the earth 12,800 years ago and "basically all hell broke loose," Kennett said. The event left a layer of cosmic impact-related materials at more than 30 sites over four continents, including nanodiamonds, high temperature impact spherules, meltglass and minerals and a peak in platinum.

"It was pretty widespread. It was pretty dramatic," Kennett said.

Widespread biomass burning, a shift in ocean circulation and the extinction of the North American megafauna -- including mammoths, ground sloths, sabertooth cats, horses and camels -- are attributed to the event, he said. The human Stone Age Clovis Culture was also severely affected.

"It took hundreds of years for that population to rebound," he said.

The latest academic paper Kennett co-authored was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the topic of abrupt climate changes that caused small decreases in seawater oxygenation and in turn led to extensive seafloor ecosystem reorganizations. Recovery from these reorganizations took up to 1,000 years.

With so much research to tackle even in retirement, it's his family ties to Rathburn that brought him to Indiana State.

"I appreciate him," Kennett said of Rathburn. "Years ago, we had some overlapping research. I suppose if it weren't for Tony, I wouldn't come."


Photo: -- From left, James Kennett, emeritus professor at University of California Santa Barbara, Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State University and Indiana State graduate students Ashley Burkett and Ryan Venturelli.

Contact: Tony Rathburn, professor of geology at Indiana State, 812-237-2269 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or