Rowan Lockwood studies extinct animals and she is perfectly willing to tap your childhood fascination with them if it will kindle your interest in geology.
Lockwood, a professor in William & Mary’s Department of Geology, is a 2019 recipient of a Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award. The awards, which “recognize excellence in teaching, research, and service among the faculties of Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities,” are administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) and sponsored by Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion.
Lockwood is one of two William & Mary faculty to be honored in 2019, along with W&M Law School’s Jeffrey Bellin, University Professor for Teaching Excellence. With 44 faculty recognized since 1987, W&M has received more Outstanding Faculty Awards than any other college or university in the state.
“The vast majority of students come into William & Mary not thinking they want to major in geology,” Lockwood explained. “It’s my job — and my colleagues’ job — to show them how amazing geology is. The idea is to recruit them, get them excited about earth science in general.”
She thinks that maybe one or two students in an entering class at William & Mary intends to be a geology major, but the department typically graduates 25 to 40 each year. Lockwood explained that the metamorphic process by which she and her colleagues convert undeclared underclassmen into geology majors works largely through the introductory classes.
When Lockwood teaches GEOL 110, Earth's Environmental Systems: Physical Geography, she divides the class into four corners of the room on the first day. One corner represents the lithosphere, the solid earth. Then there are corners for the the hydrosphere, which is water, and for the atmosphere and the biosphere, or life.
She tosses out a big ball of twine and starts with the questions: Did you shower today? Hold the end of the twine and toss the ball to the hydrosphere corner. Oh, but that water didn’t get there all by itself, did it? Toss the ball to where the rain originates — the atmosphere.
“After about 10 or 15 minutes, the entire class is tied up, and they are laughing and tripping over each other, but they get the idea that all four of these quadrants are deeply intertwined and when you affect one part of that earth’s environmental system, you affect all of them,” she explained. “If I pull on the string, I can pull on half the class.”
Lockwood’s research specialty is paleobiology. She teaches GEOL 303, Age of Dinosaurs, which often serves to close the deal with any undergraduate who has thought about majoring in geology.
“I tell students it’s everything you ever wanted to know about dinosaurs and much, much more,” she said. “It gives students a chance to get in touch with their inner eight-year-old.”
The Age of Dinosaurs is a class within William & Mary’s COLL Curriculum and so the class covers more than the biology and geology of dinosaurs. For example, Lockwood said the class includes segments on dinos in art and literature and the colorful and competitive dinosaur hunters of the 19th century.
“Ethics have been a big issue for the dinosaur world, so we talk about the ethics of science,” she added. “And we talk about how it relates to them doing science at William and Mary.”
“Doing science” is encouraged for all William & Mary students. In the geology department, it’s a short step from classroom to outcrop. Lockwood has mentored the research work of more than 60 students. In any given semester, she will have three to eight seniors working on projects, but often has students as young as sophomores working in her lab.
“This idea of the scholar teacher, that’s what we do at William & Mary. We introduce tons and tons of our students to research,” Lockwood said. “Geology is usually ranked within the top undergrad programs in the country and a lot of it is because of this tight-knit community that we’ve developed and these one-on-one relationships that we can have with students.”
Lockwood has a long slate of research credentials that contribute to her value as a mentor to young scientists. Her focus is on extinctions and environmental change in ancient oceans — and the relevance today of those events that occurred millions of years ago. She has published more than 30 important papers in peer-reviewed journals including Science and Nature, papers that often include an undergrad co-author from the Lockwood lab.
“Dr. Lockwood’s undergraduate research students are highly sought after for graduate programs across the country because she is known as a truly exceptional undergraduate mentor,” wrote Mary Droser, a professor in the University of California, Riverside Department of Earth Sciences, in Lockwood’s nomination packet for the OFA. “There is no undergraduate program in the country that has yielded as many successful paleontologists.”
She has received consistent funding for her work from the National Science Foundation and other sources. Lockwood’s research has demonstrable implications for the environment and ecology of present-day Virginia. In the spring of 2017, she was selected to speak at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference. Lockwood provided the first evidence that the “big, honkin’ grandma oysters” of the ancient Chesapeake Bay grew to a foot long and up to 30 years. She argued that by preferentially harvesting the largest oysters in the Bay today, humans are removing the most reproductively active, predominantly female members of the population.
Her contributions, both to science and to the university, have not gone unnoticed. Lockwood’s honors, in addition to the SCHEV Outstanding Faculty Award, include the Thomas Jefferson Award (2009), which is the highest teaching honor bestowed on early career faculty at William & Mary; the Advisor of the Year Award (2005); an Alumni Fellowship Teaching Award (2007); a Plumeri Award (2015); and the Jennifer and Devin Murphy Award (2010) for outstanding integration of faculty research with teaching.