College of Science & Engineering Alumni Newsletter

Spring 2001

Rock Solid Foundation Starts at SFSU

    Lisa White’s (BA ’84, Geology) pathway to professor of geology is not your typical one, just ask her family members – that is, if you can get a word in! Raised in a family of extroverts, she laughs at how her shy demeanor was no match for the lively personalities of the family (the family professions include a singer/performer, a community health advocate, a psychology professor, and a college administrator). Intellectual pursuits were clearly valued and encouraged by her family, but geology hardly matched the professions of any of her role models whose careers were rooted in the activism of the 1960’s. Lisa’s family did nurture her curiosity for science, however, through their collective passion for learning and their sense of adventure, combined with frequent trips to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Although she was fascinated by science at an early age, she confesses to being just an above average student in San Francisco public schools (she is an alumna of George Washington High School, Roosevelt Middle School and Frank McCoppin Elementary School in the City’s Richmond district). Her upbringing in San Francisco produced a pretty typical urban teenager who enrolled at SFSU in the late 1970’s more interested in music and the arts, rather than science.
    Her first major at SFSU was photography and her interest in science did not re-emerge until she took a general education geology course. She credits many of her faculty colleagues in the Geosciences Department for encouraging her interest in the geology major while she was an undergraduate, and for recommending her for a summer internship program at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park in 1982. Lisa assisted geologists on field projects in Alaska, New Mexico and the California Coast Ranges during the three summers she worked at the USGS. She not only developed a greater awareness of the geosciences profession as a result of the internship, but she also received a lot of encouragement to go to graduate school. Because the mentorship program at the USGS made such a difference in her career, she later coordinated the same outreach program (Minority Participation in the Earth Sciences, MPES program) from 1988 to 1995.
    During her graduate work at the University of California, Santa Cruz she was bitten by the international travel bug and she had the opportunity to work on multinational research projects in Israel, Egypt, and Japan. It was during her dissertation work at U.C. Santa Cruz on the Miocene (24 to 5 million years ago) Monterey Formation that her interests in micropaleontology and oceanography intensified. Her participation as a shipboard scientist in the Ocean Drilling Program helped to develop her expertise in diatom microfossils. As a faculty member at SFSU she continues to investigate the unique depositional setting of biosiliceous (diatom-rich) sedimentary rocks around the Pacific Rim, both on land and in the sea. She recently completed projects with the Ocean Drilling Program off the tectonically active Pacific margin of Costa Rica and a NSF-funded field project on organic-rich units in the far east of Russia. While she was in graduate school at UCSC, the Geosciences Department at SFSU continued to track her progress and when she completed her dissertation in 1989 she was delighted when the Department considered her for a faculty position. When she joined the Geosciences Department faculty in 1990, she was, and continues to be, enthusiastic about reaching out to students who are probably a lot like she was as an undergraduate.
    A common theme in Lisa’s professional decisions is her desire to give back to her community. Connecting with communities through education has always been important to her and to her family, as her parents’ career paths were always community-centered.  SFSU has been a part of her family for several generations; her parents were students at S.F. State in the 1950’s. Those were very exciting years at San Francisco State (“The Willie Brown years”), particularly for African Americans who, like her parents, moved to San Francisco during the post-WWII California migration. Lisa’s father, Joe White (BA ’54 and MS ’56, Psychology), was also a faculty member at SFSU. He was brave enough to return to campus from a faculty position at Cal State Long Beach during the 1968-69 strike year to be the Dean of Undergraduate Studies. He loves San Francisco and likely would have spent his entire career at SFSU but his support of the students’ position did not endear himself to then President Hiyakawa. He was asked to step down as dean, or as he tells the story, “Hiyakawa ran me out of there!” After leaving SFSU he became a professor of cross-cultural psychology at U.C. Irvine, where he is now professor emeritus. Her mother, Myrtle White (BA ’55, Nursing), worked for many years in community nursing programs in the City, such as the teenage mother program at Mount Zion Hospital in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her mother continues to live in the City close to campus and has recently joined the Urban Elders Program and enjoys taking classes at SFSU every semester.
    Lisa’s election as a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences in the fall of 2000 and her selection as chair of the Geosciences Department, effective fall 2001, completes the circle that connects her youth, her family, and her San Francisco roots to the SFSU community.

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Updated by Lannie Nguyen-Tang on June 27, 2001