Long before she studied active fault lines in the western United States or examined soil erosion in Lancaster County streams, Dorothy Merritts learned to love science as a child wandering the wooded hills of Blair County with his friends.
“I really loved hiking and exploring,” she said. “We looked for fossils, minerals and rocks, and we found human artifacts like old bottles, and we did that all the time.”
Jumping at every opportunity to get his hands on a nature book or an issue of National Geographic magazine, Merritts described a childhood obsessed with the outdoors. Even before she left elementary school, she knew she wanted to be a scientist.
Now, decades later, Merritts is a professor of geosciences at Franklin & Marshall College and was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences – an elite society “charged with providing independent and objective advice to the nation on science and technology issues”.
Merritts, now in her 60s, is the first F&M faculty member elected to the academy. She was one of 120 scientists chosen for the new class last month.
“I was delighted. I’m still delighted,” she said, explaining that she learned of her election after the academy’s annual meeting in early May.
Christopher J. Williams, professor of environmental studies and director of the Earth and Environment Department at F&M, celebrated Merritts’ scholarly work.
“Dorothy’s research attracts students with different interests and provides them with interesting and challenging individualized research opportunities both in the field and in the laboratory,” said Williams. “Her teaching is informed by her research, so having someone like Dorothy teaching students at all levels of the program really elevates our academic program. It is a well-deserved honor that reflects Dorothy’s hard work and dedication to scientific research.
This investigation began with her childhood years exploring near her home in Blair County’s Tyrone borough, and continued after high school at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, where she earned a undergraduate degree in geology. She went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering geology from Stanford University in California and a doctorate in geomorphology from the University of Arizona.
While out west, Merritts said she began studying plate tectonics, traveling the coast and even overseas to visit and research earthquake-prone fault lines. This includes the San Andreas Fault in California, she said, where researchers used diggers to dig trenches along the fault and then examined the sediments to understand changes in the landscape.
“Soil to me is not just, ‘Is it good for gardening or farming?’ It’s: ‘What is the history of this soil over the centuries, the millennia?’ “, did she say. “He has very clear characteristics that we can use to understand the story.”
Merritts’ geoscience research continued after he joined the faculty of F&M in the late 1980s – a hire that fulfilled a childhood aspiration. She said she had dreamed of being a college professor from a young age, when she first set eyes on its campus while visiting family in Lancaster County.
“I loved that look of a liberal arts school, the little campus with students walking around,” she said, grateful that her F&M position gave her ample opportunity to research place in the real world.
“I would never do it if there was no work on the ground. I love the field work which involves covering several kilometers a day. I don’t want to just sit in the same place every day for a week or two,” Merritts said, speaking on the phone last month while taking a break from a research site. “Ideally, I would walk along an entire creek and then use what I learned… to understand the history of the creek.”
Lancaster County’s waterways became a major focus of Merritts’ work, particularly when examining how sediment trapped behind colonial-era dams – many of which were destroyed or removed since – have contributed to the degradation of local waterways, as well as those downstream.
His work helps inform stream restoration projects needed to meet federal mandates, which require Lancaster County to reduce erosion-related pollution like sediment and nutrients that are harmful to the Chesapeake Bay. downstream.
“This job would be exciting for us, no matter if anyone cared,” Merritts said, “but people do.”
Merritts, a fan of research collaboration, was able to study these flows alongside her husband, Robert Walter, who is also a professor of geosciences at F&M.
Walter is clearly proud of his wife’s election to the National Academy of Sciences.
“It’s one of the highest honors a scientist can get… Of the tens of thousands of scientists in the United States, only 120 are selected each year,” Walter said of the election of his wife.
A spokesperson for the National Academy of Sciences could not provide statistics on the exact number of elected members from small undergraduate schools like F&M.
Merritts is now one of 2,586 national members and 515 international members that make up the academy, according to a spokesperson. Prior to the election, Merritts had to be nominated by a serving member. Last month, she said she wasn’t entirely sure who nominated her.
“Once members are elected, they become permanent members of the NAS,” a spokesperson said.
As a member of the academy, Merritts can be called upon as an expert to serve on committees and provide informed opinions on field-specific issues across the country, even potentially influencing public policy.
“It’s so exciting,” Merritts said.