Coastal Journey Begins: September 1962
My fascination with coastal geomorphology commenced as an undergraduate at University of Sydney as part of the Honours program in Geography 1959-1960. The question was what to do next. I had read enough literature to excite me to go overseas for postgraduate research. In this there was encouragement from mentors in Canberra and Sydney, specifically Joe Jennings and Trevor Langford-Smith.
In 1960 Trevor received a copy of the proceedings of the 2nd Coastal Geography Conference held at the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI), Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, in April 1959. This proved to be a remarkable, inspiring document. This conference was sponsored by the Geography Branch of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Committee on Geography of the US National Academy of Sciences—National Research Council. I was gob smacked by the papers, the field trip outlines, and a summary of the history of research undertaken by those associated with the CSI, and LSU School of Geology, Geography and Archaeology. The proceedings included papers from LSU staff as well as eminent coastal geomorphologists from other countries. All this greatly added to my desire to study at a place where such coastal interests were so strong, especially where I could expand my knowledge of sedimentology.
The model of PhD research in Australia and the UK in the 1960s was essentially self-directed. One settled on a topic, and it was up to the candidate to pursue the study under guidance of a supervisor. The thesis would be examined externally. I felt the need for more systematic coursework in “soft” sediments and Quaternary geology. The attraction of going to the USA, to a place where quite clearly such an emphasis was embedded in a well-funded institute, proved compelling. But how to be admitted and receive financial support?
Fortunately, in the period after completing my honours degree I became fascinated with mangroves. A lecture on mangrove ecology by a visitor to Sydney from South Africa, Bill Macnae, stirred this interest. I had read a paper by Bob West, a geographer at LSU, on his field work on the Pacific coast of Columbia. West was a Latin American specialist. In correspondence with him, it appeared he was looking for a graduate student to accompany him to Tabasco in Mexico in 1963. I was lucky; he offered me a research assistantship (RA). On arrival at LSU the first semester was spent undertaking a literature review and preparing for the six-month field trip in 1963 sponsored by ONR. I was very pleasantly surprised by the LSU library; it became my second home during that first semester. It had a great store of journals and other references that I would not have found in Australia.
Arrival in Baton Rouge was a cultural shock. This was a turbulent time to be living in a southern US city. I cocooned myself on campus and focused on the duties of a RA and course work. All new graduate students had to undertake a preliminary exam to determine what courses were needed before they would be able to commence research. My Sydney background, such as the honours thesis, gave me exemption from many courses. Being an avid reader and working for West helped in this regard. But deficiencies were recognised including the need to undertake courses in sedimentology, Gulf Coast geology, fluvial morphology, and statistics. Along with one other coastal student, I was encouraged to go to the Agriculture Faculty to study statistics; we were pioneers as there were no such courses in Geography or Geology. In retrospect I am grateful for this opportunity although at the time this course and the two language requirement were tough.
All this was ancillary to becoming part of the CSI team of staff and students. Its Director, Professor R.J. Russell, had a contractual relationship with ONR which offered a level of security of employment and opportunities to undertake research all over the world. ONR wanted to build a store of knowledge of coastal systems facilitating research across a broad spectrum of coastal science. I quickly settled into the milieu. It was like being in coastal heaven to be able to ask questions on what problems staff and fellow graduate students were working on in different places in the USA and internationally. The range of research topics was quite vast. Of course, there was much focus on the Mississippi Delta region. Some of my experience of that time is contained in an article published in “Stories from the Field” (Journal of Coastal Research, Special Issue #101, A. Short and R. Brander, eds., 2020, p. 2-5).
Sixty years may seem to be a long time ago. However, to have had the opportunity of being part of a collective of researchers and academics in 1962 determined the course of my career in coastal science. I am forever grateful to CSI at LSU.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2022. For correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org