Unique Scientist: Derek Gibson

It is Navy Day – so let’s meet veteran and non-traditional student Derek Gibson (He/him)! Derek is a geologist working on his PhD training in the USA!

What kind of scientist are you?
Broadly, I am a geologist. I study how the hydroclimate shapes our landscape in terms of flooding and river mobility. My current research is focused on the recent increase in extreme hydrologic events in the midwestern United States, and how modern climate change is a factor in their magnitude and frequency.

What made you want to become a scientist?
I finished my contract with the United States Navy in 2012 and had no idea what to do with my life, so I registered for classes at a local college with a tentative major in elementary education. One of my general studies classes was the typical “Intro to Geology,” and I fell in love. I couldn’t believe that a person could get a job working outside, exploring, AND solving relevant environmental problems. I changed my major after the first field trip and never looked back.

“There absolutely needs to be a way to get poor people, like I was, either into college without requiring them to sign their life away to fight in wars they don’t believe in […]”

Derek Gibson

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I am a GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] veteran and non-traditional student. During school, I was always a decade older than my peers and perpetually behind the curve concerning basic science concepts (for example, I failed remedial chemistry my freshman year because it had been a decade since high school chem). I was able to overcome these shortcomings due to extremely supportive and understanding professors at Arizona Western College who took many hours out of their busy lives to counsel and work with me. Now I am a PhD research fellow in a geochemistry laboratory and teach chemistry concepts to undergraduate lab assistants.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I love cycling. Nothing takes the stress away like going out for hours on the bike and not worrying about experiments or data and just focusing on how great your legs hurt (if that makes sense? Haha).

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
Science needs to be open-access. The reason I joined the military in the first place was so that I could get out of poverty and not join the High School-to-factory pipeline, which was the only thing my community offered. Anytime I visit my hometown, I see tons of objectively otherwise brilliant people who reject science concepts (like climate change or evolution) because they have never in their life been exposed to the science on those topics, and there is no way for them to access the cutting edge studies that are behind publisher paywalls. There absolutely needs to be a way to get poor people, like I was, either into college without requiring them to sign their life away to fight in wars they don’t believe in, or at least access to modern science studies so that they can read the science for themselves instead of relying on media outlets to interpret findings for them.

“[My grandfather] inspires me daily because he showed me at an early age that you are never too old to learn something new and excel at it.”

Derek Gibson

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
My grandfather was a public school teacher for most of his life, but realized that teaching didn’t pay enough to support his growing family, So, in the 70’s he started to teach himself how to code. Ultimately, he became a top computer scientist for GE without any formal training. He was eventually force-retired in the 2000’s because at that point the position required a degree. However, he stayed active with the company as an independent consultant because he knew the computer systems better than anyone in the company. He is in his late-80’s and I still go to him when I have IT questions. He inspires me daily because he showed me at an early age (even though I didn’t realize it then) that you are never too old to learn something new and excel at it.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
This month my partner is in Zambia for field work and I have thus far managed to keep her houseplants alive! On a serious note, I submitted a paper to a journal and I think it has a good chance to get accepted.


#PoorInSTEM, #OldInSTEM

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