Jerry Weisenfluh retires after 37 years at UK, including 26 with KGS
Jerry Weisenfluh first came to the UK campus in 1980 as a research associate for the Department of Geological Sciences, as it was known at the time. He had been working on his doctoral dissertation at the University of South Carolina. “My advisor had taken a job at UK to establish a coal research program, and part of the arrangement they made with him was that he would have a position for an assistant to help develop that program. So that’s how I originally came; that was intended to be a 3-year hitch, and it turned into 10 years.” During that time, Weisenfluh developed research projects with operating coal mines in Kentucky and supervised students participating in the work. The mine geology program helped him build relationships with the coal industry. “That work was probably the most scientifically interesting work I’ve done in my career, and the most challenging,” Weisenfluh says. “Building relationships with a variety of people in the private industry was very rewarding.”
His career at UK, which will close with his June 30 retirement, spanned much longer than he originally expected—37 years.
In 1991, KGS Assistant Director Jim Cobb, who had received federal funds for a coal availability research project, approached Weisenfluh about working on the research. He joined what was then called the Coal and Mineral Section, headed by Don Chesnut. The coal availability project allowed Weisenfluh to apply his experience in mining to regional coal resource assessments, work that has continued until recently.
The coal resource research also involved a lot of geospatial data work, and he developed expertise in that field as KGS was expanding its GIS capabilities. In 2000, Cobb, who had become KGS director, asked Weisenfluh to develop a new Geospatial Analysis Section, which Weisenfluh headed for 8 years. That was the beginning of the interactive side of the KGS website with its map and data services.
“Certainly the development of our online data services that I was involved in was one of the technical achievements I’m most proud of. But it also required a change in our culture, and we were ultimately successful in getting people thinking about how we serve data, migrating to this new idea of giving it for free. That transformed the Survey in a lot of ways. The philosophy of what we were doing was that we would give data away, free up our researchers, generate good will, and that should attract new research projects.” Weisenfluh says the philosophy worked quickly, with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet providing funding for his section to develop similar online services for the cabinet.
When he became associate director in 2008, Weisenfluh continued doing some GIS and database work, along with his new administrative duties. When Cobb retired in 2014, Weisenfluh served as interim KGS director until Bill Haneberg was appointed director last September. After 37 years at UK and KGS, Weisenfluh reflected on the Survey, the geologic profession, and the changes he has seen in both. “The biggest change has been the rapid advance in technology,” he says, “and how we’re able to do things so much more quickly now than we could in the past. That’s probably the most dramatic change.”
Thank you for your exemplary service to AASG, the Survey, and the citizens of Kentucky. I really enjoyed getting to meet you and wish you all the best. BTW, we are using your geologic-hazard and land-use planning maps, and map information service as great examples as we work to upgrade our map delivery services.
Vice President, Association of American State Geologists
State Geologist and Director, Colorado Geological Survey
The geology profession, too, has seen changes. “Geology tends to go through cycles. This one’s driven a lot by technology. There will be intervals of time in which there will be a focus on data collection, field work, and observation, and then we’ll go through cycles that are more quantitative. We used to call them “black box eras” in which you would measure things in the laboratory and not focus so much on where it came from.”
“The more data you have, the more complicated the world gets. It is a concern, and it always has been, that geologists are not getting into the field and they don’t understand the context of the samples and the data that they’re getting. So I’ve always thought that the field work component was an important part of student training and experience. I was lucky to have that, because my early career was in the field-intensive part of the profession.”
Providing university students with research opportunities at KGS, he says, has made them better professionals. “The more we hear back from students, the more we’ve learned that the experience they get here really helps them in their career in many ways.”
Weisenfluh is optimistic about the Survey’s future, even in a time of reduced public spending and grants. “I think our survey is really healthy compared to many other geological surveys we hear about. Part of that is being in the university, and part of it is good decisions and good hires we’ve made.”
Though he will retire from an active career, the one thing Weisenfluh definitely plans to do is continue learning. “That’s what keeps me going from day to day. Figuring things out and solving problems. So, whatever I do, it’s going to involve learning things. It may or may not be in geology, but I’ll find ways to keep learning.”