Skip to main content

News & Events

November 20th, 2005

Gifford Miller: Recipient of the 2005 Easterbrook Distinguished Scientist Award

Gifford Miller received the Easterbrook Distinguished Scientist Award at the Geological Society of America's (GSA) 2005 annual meeting. The award is given annually by the Society's Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division to an individual who has shown unusual excellence in published research, as demonstrated by a single paper of exceptional merit or a series of papers that have substantially increased knowledge in Quaternary geology or geomorphology. Recent recipients include Wallace Broecker, Victor Baker, Richard Alley, Tom Dunne, and Edward Keller. Miller's former advisor and INSTAAR fellow John Andrews wrote the citation, with contributions by nineteen individuals from several countries and with a variety of connections.

Citation by John Andrews (read by Steven Forman)

There are several definitions of “Distinguished” but all can be applied to the work and career of Gifford Hubbs Miller.   Giff came from an academic family and much of his love for field work might be traced to the family expeditions with his father, Robert Miller, who was on the Faculty of the University of Michigan with a specialty in the endemic fish populations of SW USA and other regions.  Through a somewhat circuitous route Giff arrived at the University of Colorado in the late 1960’s and stayed after his undergraduate degree in Geology to work on his PhD on Quaternary problems on Baffin Island in the Eastern Canadian Arctic.  This was completed in 1975.  The rest as they say is history.

The letters in support of Giff’s nomination reflect both the geographic diversity of his research interests as well as a rich diversity of problems central to the interests of members of the Division of Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology.   Of particular note has been Giff’s combination of extensive field research in harsh environments combined with his analytical abilities and interests.  A central theme of Giff’s research over the last 35 years has been his search for methods that would establish that fundamental axis of Quaternary studies, and that is the development of reliable chronologies. This eventually led Miller to found the “Center for Geochronological Research” at the University of Colorado where he has been its Director and guiding force.         

In his PhD research he made some of the earliest observations on the application of lichenometry to estimate the ages of Neoglacial moraines.  However, a more fundamental problem arose in his PhD dissertation and that was the development of methods that would complement and extend radiocarbon dating on the various fossiliferous units that are found in the 100’s of kilometers of cliff section along the eastern Baffin Island seaboard, most of  which were beyond the limits of radiocarbon dating.  This resulted in the late 1970’s of the development of the Amino Acid Racemization Lab. at INSTAAR, University of Colorado, which Giff developed with the assistance of one of his primary research mentors, Ed Hare of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, DC.  Giff rapidly became one of the world’s foremost experts on the application of amino acid racemization to a wide series of Quaternary problems, involving field research as well as laboratory experiments.  This was also a research area that many of his graduate students worked in for their PhD’s and continued in their “after life”.  This also led to a growing interest in the application of a variety of geochemical methods to Quaternary problems and this can seen in a broader context in the change from the “Geochron” Center to the  “Center for Geochemical Analysis of the Global Environment” or GAGE.

“Have method will travel” led Giff’s research to expand both geographically and  intellectually.  As a result he has made substantial contributions to our understanding of the Quaternary history of Svalbard, the United Kingdom, Iceland, and Australia.  More recently his interest in the Canadian Arctic and geochronology has led him, with the assistance of a cadre of graduate students, to apply, in a systematic way, cosmogenic exposure dating to the problems that he investigated in his PhD dissertation, namely the extent and chronology of glaciations along the Eastern Canadian Arctic seaboard.  This has resulted in a major rethinking of the glacial sequence in this region and feeds directly into the “Big versus Little” ice debate of the 1980’s.  However, in many ways, the research in Australia on the timing of the human migration by aboriginal peoples and their impact on the natural environment and subsequent climate history may be the most profound and original of all his substantial contributions to Quaternary studies.

Throughout his career at the University of Colorado Giff has supervised graduate students, most of whom are now pursuing their own professional careers at various Universities and Colleges.  These students have invariably focused their research on new and innovative problems, hence are carrying on the tradition established by their mentor.

The nomination of Giff Miller for this award was supported by nineteen individuals from several countries and with a variety of connections.  They include such luminaries as Professors Jan Mangerud (Norway) and David Q. Bowen (UK), Mangerud wrote: "Giff is an outstanding and gifted scientist; he has the ability to discover original pathways to solve problems without dwelling on details, and the patience to follow up. And, as important, he is extremely curious and enthusiastic, and he has the courage to try new methods and start on novel problems."  In terms of Giff’s work in Australia, one his colleagues Michael Gagan wrote:  "I believe Giff’s pioneering work in establishing amino acid racemization geochronology and isotopic tracer studies for the fossil eggshells of Dromaius novaehollandiae, the Australian emu, and the extinct giant flightless bird, Genyornis newtoni, is generally regarded as a major advance in the fields of Quaternary geochronology, paleoclimatology, and paleoecology.  Without Giff's innovative work, it is unlikely that our understanding of the late Quaternary climatic history and human impacts on the Australian environment would have advanced beyond the somewhat primitive level of the 1980s."  

These and many other comments in the letters of support testify to the appropriateness of this award--Gifford H. Miller is truly a Distinguished Scientist.

Response by Gifford H Miller

Thanks, Steve, for those generous words, and thanks in absentia to John Andrews for his efforts in coordinating the nomination.  I came to Colorado from a stint in Alaska…. initially with the antipoverty program, followed by an attempt to make a living as a trapper.  Although I was a dismal failure at this, I learned so much that I felt the need to become a philosopher, and planned to major in the discipline at Colorado.  Needing to flesh out my course schedule in my first semester there, on a whim I signed up for an introductory Geology course, taught by Bill Bradley….. there is a reason Bill received the Division’s Distinguished Career Award a few years back.  He breathed such life into what I always thought was a dull and dusty subject, that I was converted before the semester’s end.  I think this experience is not unusual; it may well be the norm.  The potential influence of outstanding teachers at all levels, but especially at the introductory level, never ceases to impress me.

This is not an award in recognition of teaching, but I want to acknowledge the important links between teaching and research.  When Mark Meier became Director of INSTAAR in the mid 1980s, he proposed a new introductory course in Global Change, one of the first in the country.  I was an enthusiastic volunteer to teach the class, but found that I had to read material far outside my knowledge base to teach even at the introductory level.  Then, in the early 1990s I began to work in Australia.  When we had trouble explaining the apparent failure of the Australian Monsoon in the Late Quaternary, unexpectedly, I realized one day that the material I had just learned to teach Global Change, covering the role of the biosphere in the climate system, might contain the key principles that explained the observed enigma.  This resulted in a decade of exciting research on the complex interactions between humans, vegetation, climate and megafauna in Australia.  Just one other example, again from my freshman class.  I teach about global warming, with a strong emphasis on Arctic warming, where I have, of course, a special interest.  I have always included a time-series of images of the Tiger Ice Cap, a small plateau icecap on Baffin Island that I visited in the early 1980s.  These images document the ice cap’s steady retraction during historic time.  A couple of years ago I thought I should update my visuals utilizing satellite imagery now available on line, to see how the Tiger was faring.   To my surprise, I found I was looking for the ex-Tiger Ice Cap.  It was no more.  With a bit more work from my research group, we were able to show that all of the plateau ice caps would disappear within the next 1 to 3 decades, even with no additional warming.  This led directly to a large new research campaign on Baffin Island, the first results of which were presented in a poster and a talk at this meeting.  It is unlikely that this project would have been conceived without the initiative generated from teaching a freshman-level introductory class.

And this leads to what I have always suspected is the most important ingredient in the research enterprise, serendipity: the fact that we often find something unexpected and useful while searching for something else entirely.  The old hands in the audience are no doubt familiar with this, but for those of you just starting your careers, I would encourage you to listen carefully to your accidental discoveries and oddball thoughts… they are most often wrong, or irrelevant, but every now and then one of them may lead to the excitement of real discovery, the most enjoyable aspect of science.

In my career I have benefited from the companionship and sage advice of many people… John Andrews, who introduced me to the Canadian Arctic and who believed in me long before it was appropriate to do so,  Jan Mangerud, who in a year in Bergen showed me that John Andrews didn’t actually know everything, and my Australian colleague John Magee, who not only taught me to read the Quaternary of the Australian arid zone, but also showed me how remote field work could be compatible with good food and a fine red wine at the end of the day.  There are many others to whom I am indebted, but I want to acknowledge in particular the many graduate students I have been fortunate enough to work with at Colorado over the past 30 years, many of whom are here tonight.  They have enriched my life, and done most of the heavy lifting.  And especially I wish to acknowledge my family: my wife, Midra, who has given me the freedom to spend sometimes too long in distant field sites and never doubted that I would return, and my sons, Luke and Obadiah, who have participated numerous times in those field campaigns.

Finally, my thanks to Don Easterbrook, for his generous support that makes this award possible, and to the Division, for the honor of being the recipient of the Easterbrook Distinguished Scientist Award this year.

Thank you all.