Friday, December 24, 2010
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo
The lecture hall was dimly lit as I weaved my way past students who had just been let out from the class before. I shuffled my way down the narrow aisles between the staggered seats and plunked down my bag, grabbing my notebook in preparation for my first Earth 121 course lecture. A man entered from the side door at the front of the room and walked over to the podium, pressing a few buttons to turn on the projector and adjust the lights; this man was to be my Earth Science professor for the next four months.
Introducing himself to the students as “Dr. Alan Morgan”, I noticed that the silvery white haired professor had a Welsh accent. Dr. Morgan explained that he grew up in Barry, at the southern tip of Wales and that it was because of the geology of Wales that he took an interest in rocks and fossils so much so that he ended up becoming a professor in the subject.
At the age of eight playing across the road from his home, Alan noticed the strangest rock nestled between the stalks of a bush. Picking it up, he thought it resembled the shape of a snail. He took his treasure to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff where he soon learned that he had found a fossilized gastropod, from the lower Jurassic Period. This was the first of many visits that Alan made by train between ages 8 and 10 to the National Museum of Wales to attend Saturday morning educational sessions offered by the museum. While intended for school teachers and local children, the School Service Officer, Emlyn Evans, allowed Alan to join as he had shown keen interest.
In 1960, during his final high school year, Alan traveled to Iceland on a British Schools Exploring Society expedition. There he spent months looking at igneous rocks, as well as glacial landforms. This trip confirmed what he wanted to do for a career and that fall he applied to Leicester University. In 1964, he graduated from Leicester with Double Honours B.Sc. in geology and geography. Later that same year, Alan came to Canada to do his master’s degree at the University of Alberta in Calgary. His future wife, a Leicester graduate in zoology, was studying biology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
Completing his M.Sc. in geography, in 1966 Alan and his new wife went back to Britain to do their doctoral degrees at the University of Birmingham. Upon completion of their doctorates (both in geology) in 1970, they returned to Canada. The journey had a stopover in Iceland to visit his friend, Stefan, with whom he had become friends on the 1960 expedition. While in Iceland, Alan and Anne visited Heimaey, a small island off the south coast of Iceland, as well as the volcano Surtsey, which was further inland and which had been erupting from 1963 to 1967. Alan proposed to have Surtsey designated as a World Heritage site, a status that was awarded by UNESCO in July of this year!
Prof. Morgan began teaching at the University of Waterloo in 1971, with courses in Environmental Studies and Earth Sciences. In January of 1973, he flew to Iceland during the eruption of the volcano Eldfell, to gather rock samples for teaching purposes. Someone fortuitously suggested taking along a 16 mm camera to record the eruption. More footage was collected on two subsequent visits to Heimaey in April and June. This footage was subsequently compiled to create a documentary for “Nature of Things” titled “The Heimaey Eruption; Iceland 1973”. Both CBC and PBS aired the show in 1974.
The first week of Prof. Morgan’s class intimidated me! He began the term discussing the various types of silicate structures, crystal forms and mineral classifications, all of which require intense memory work. At this point in the year, I had second thoughts about continuing with the course. I recall thinking, “If it is this intense already, what will it be like closer to the end of the term?” Prof. Morgan didn’t help matters by telling the class that the average grade for this course over the last 35 years was 66%! At the end of the first month, my fellow students were complaining about how hard they found the course to be thus far. Coming straight from high school, this first year course was not what these students were expecting. This was my third year at the University of Waterloo but my first course outside of the Arts Faculty. I knew science would be more intense. However, despite the initial feelings about the course, we all soldiered on, showing up to our lectures three days a week and to our three hour labs. And Prof. Morgan proved to be a wonderful instructor - he made the class interesting by telling personal stories about the current subject that were often quite humorous.
During the course of the term, he mentioned a few times that he would not be able to teach Earth 122, the follow up course to 121. The students that I became friends with in Earth 121 and the associated lab were all saddened by the news. Despite the intense memorization required by the course, we all came to enjoy it and especially Prof. Morgan’s witty lecture style. Of the twenty-four courses I have completed thus far, his was one of the best. Thanks Prof. Morgan!
Alan retired at the end of April 2009 after 38 years at Waterloo. But this is not the end for our Welsh Professor. He plans to continue lecturing aboard cruise ships. He has done three tours already, one around Iceland to Jan Mayen, another from Iceland to Spitzbergen, and a third from Tahiti to Hawaii. He also has other plans for traveling, with South America and South Africa both on the list. In September 2010 he travelled to the Canadian Rockies on a week long field trip which will take twenty four geologists from the Drumheller area to the Columbia Icefields, and Golden in BC. Almost immediately after, he will travel to Germany to give a keynote lecture on Geoscience Education and Public Awareness to the German Mineralogical Society in Berlin, and then returned to Waterloo for his last “in-house” term with Earth 121 and Earth 236.