There must be many graduate students who’ve felt like Sisyphus: pushing an immense boulder uphill, only to have it roll back to the bottom time after time. But not Harrison Gray. Well on his way to a Ph. D. in geology, he models the evolution of landscapes by day and saves the heavy weights for his life outside of science.


Gray at a field site. Photo courtesy of Harrison Gray.

Four times a week, at 6:30 AM – when you’d find most grad students happily in bed – Gray’s already training at the gym with the rest of the weightlifting team. Throughout his Ph. D., he has followed a grueling schedule, counting calories to stay in his weight class and traveling to regular competitions. But don’t expect your garden-variety diet: weightlifters need incredible amounts of food to stay muscular, and Gray generally consumes up to 3200 calories a day (that’s about 1000 calories more than your average guy!).

Soft-spoken and humorous, Gray laughed when I ask about his daily diet. “It’s all cottage cheese,” his labmate chimed in. Cottage cheese is cheap, low-fat, and high-protein: perfect for the weightlifter on a budget. As one might expect from a Ph. D. candidate, Gray’s approach to the sport is highly analytical. He records every calorie – including the massive burger he wolfed down during our interview – and tracks his body composition at the CU Sports Medicine Center so that he can be at his leanest for competitions.

Gray seems so relaxed and easygoing that I am momentarily taken aback by his intense and analytical approach to his sport. Like many geologists, he wears sandals and shorts to work every day and chats about long summer hiking trips in the wilderness. But don’t be fooled: the sandals facilitate stream depth measurements and the hiking trips are just a cover for field work.


Gray getting up close and personal with the data. Photo courtesy of Harrison Gray.  

After a circuitous path through academia beginning with a stint in culinary school, traversing a Master’s at the University of Cincinnati and an internship with the USGS, and ending at CU, Gray is about to finish his Ph. D. “I’m a culinary school dropout,” he joked. Next step: a full-time position as a research scientist at the USGS.

His most recent paper – published in Geology – details how the movement of the San Andreas fault can be inferred from the changing shapes of drainage basins over time. While these processes occur over million-year “geologic time scales,” models like Gray’s could affect something as important as where nuclear waste is stored.

Previously having believed that geologists spend most of their time waltzing through mountain ranges à la Sound of Music, I was disappointed to hear that Gray spends most of his time at a desk. Sure, he traveled to a wilderness area in California to collect field data, which he used to validate his model – but, he said, “there was trash all over the place.” Not the bucolic setting I had expected. But wilderness areas are some of the only places that geologic field data can be collected, because any landscape that has been fundamentally altered by humans is no longer a reliable source of information on geologic processes.

Gray doesn’t seem to mind the desk work. His métier isn’t tramping around in a field collecting rocks, but understanding and describing the basic physical processes that – quite literally – underlie the landscapes around us.

Generally blithe, he only became serious when discussing his work. “One of the luxuries [of modeling] is that you can create a world where you control everything,” he told me, frowning and earnest.

His dedication to his work is confirmed by a quick perusal of his Google Scholar profile: Gray has had a highly productive graduate career. On average, he has published two papers for each year of his Ph. D., working with researchers at both CU-Boulder and the USGS. After he graduates, he’ll continue research at the USGS Luminescence Dating Laboratory – hopefully with a weightlifting competition every once in a while to unwind. This geologist may play hard, but he works even harder.

By Kristina Vrouwenvelder

Posted by Science Buffs

A CU Boulder STEM Blog

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