By Matt Hudson, GSA Member Communications Manager

GSA Fellow Shannon Mahan began her career as geologist at the USGS’s Denver office in 1987. Since then, she has presented more than 200 diverse studies and authored or coauthored 170 peer reviewed articles, reports, or maps. Along the way, GSA helped her discover her true scientific passion. We caught up with Shannon to learn more about her journey and the role GSA’s meetings played in connecting with her community and learning to see herself as a real scientist.

GSA fellow Shannon Mahan
GSA Fellow Shannon Mahan

GSA: Hi Shannon, tell me a bit about your career. You’ve been with the USGS for 34 years now, right?

SM: It’s kind of amazing in this day and age to have stayed in one place for so many years. I started work for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Colorado, 34 years ago as a geologist, then a research geologist, and finally, now, the director of the Luminescence Geochronology Lab. It has been fun. Literally, I get paid to play in a sandbox. Sure, there’s the paperwork, budgeting, and the hurdles of managing the space for a laboratory and all the other not-so-fun non-science stuff, but literally it has been the ride of a lifetime.

GSA: According to my records, you have attended at least 25 GSA meetings over the last 20 years. What keeps you coming back?

SM: Every meeting is like a three-legged stool. One leg of the stool is location, where the fieldtrip draws you in to learn about the local geology because as a geologist that’s what you love. You want to see the local geology and geomorphology. The second leg of the stool is the technical sessions, workshops, and the professional presentations that allow you to absorb the science without so many competing demands for your time, just sitting and relaxing and thinking about the presentation. The third leg is all the after-meeting activities, which you can enjoy with the people that are now your friends and no longer just work colleagues. There are lots of neat personalities that are involved with GSA, and I try to drink beer with as many of them as I can.

GSA: I noticed you attended quite a few meetings before joining GSA. What convinced you to become a member?

SM: Letting go of money. I had a student mentality for a long time even after I got a job that paid good money. I thought GSA will always be there. There will always be someone else to support this. But, as with all learning curves in life, I was struck one day with an epiphany. If I really valued GSA and all the really great things it gave me, it was time to give back to the community. It’s not enough just to support something by going.

I also hold an officer position with the GSA Rocky Mountain Section. I have helped organize several Section meetings, and of course I pay my monetary dues. GSA is an important organization, and keeping an organization alive is really stepping up to make the original founding ideals your ideals.

GSA: Wow, that’s great. Thank you for all of your support over the years. Shifting gears a bit, what’s unique about GSA meetings?

SM: I’m part of other specialized groups, too. We have luminescence geek meetings, and I have been to some larger meetings like AGU and AAPG. I find that GSA is big enough to include many different geoscience experiences, but small enough that you can feel comfortable. It’s only anonymous if you want it to be anonymous, not because you can’t find a seat in the room or you just don’t know what the technical session is talking about. It’s big enough to bring a diverse group of geoscientists together, but small enough that they’re all accessible.

I sound like a walking advertisement for GSA, but in your life, there will be one or two organizations that you really get behind, that you really are a true believer in. For me, GSA is one of those organizations because they care—from the GSA president to the executive director to the entire Council. All of these people are giving their time and resources, and they genuinely care about the community. That is very unique, special, and worth being part of.

Shannon Mahan “taking a break and digging for sedimentary gold” during some fieldwork in the Mojave Desert.

GSA: Do you recall any moments at a meeting that were particularly impactful on your career?

SM: I learned about GSA from my first boss at the USGS, Dr. Zell Peterman. He took me to my first meeting, and he said, “Okay, Shannon, I want you to make a presentation.” So my first presentation was in 1994 on strontium, oxygen, and hydrogen isotopes as traces of regional groundwater flows through the Spring Mountains of Nevada to the Ash Meadows of California, clearly science that I am not working on today. 

I just remember being terrified giving that presentation, but I did it. And what I remember is that people treated me like a scientist. That was my first professional presentation not as a student. As terrible as it probably was, people treated me like a scientist, like I was real. I have never forgotten that experience.

It would be another two years before I gave another presentation at GSA on what would become my true love. At the time it was thermoluminescence dating of surface deposits at Yucca Mountain, southern Nevada.

At some time between 1994 and 1996 I hit on what would be my career’s work. It was probably just being around the GSA community, which still has one of the larger, diverse sets of disciplines in the geosciences. Knowing that there were these technical sessions, breakout sessions, and people I could talk to—that’s what gave me the confidence to make that leap between these two different technical sets of abilities. I got that at GSA. I didn’t get it anywhere else. I got it at GSA.

hannon Mahan hiding beneath a black cloth. "It looks funnier than it is," she noted. "Being under that black cloth in the Mojave can give you heatstroke, but in order to collect samples for my geologic specialty, I sometimes have to protect them from light."
Shannon Mahan hiding beneath a black cloth. “It looks funnier than it is,” she noted. “Being under that black cloth in the Mojave can give you heatstroke, but in order to collect samples for my geologic specialty, I sometimes have to protect them from light.”

GSA: Are there particular parts of the meeting you find most beneficial?

SM: Technical sessions are my first priority, but I love the lunchtime Feed Your Brain sessions. They’re almost like TED Talks for scientists. There’s discourse on climate, energy needs, national parks, and the GSA presidential address. Those are unique to GSA.

I really enjoy the terrific fieldtrips and workshops. You do not get the depth and breadth of those anywhere else. I try to sign up for one field trip and one workshop at every meeting. Because after all, if I’m making the time and resource investment in the meeting, I want to squeeze everything I can out of it.

GSA: Do you have advice for first time attendees?

SM: I find that the best strategy is not to run from one talk to another between sessions. That just frazzles and fragments me. My advice would be to find a session with one or two interesting talks, but then sit in that session. Learn something new. Yes. Sit all morning. Do it. Stick with it. Sure you might miss your friend’s talk, but on the other hand being present in the moment without hurry, from Zen master Shannon, may be the best way to learn. 

GSA: You attended GSA’s North Central Section Meeting, which was our first fully online meeting. What did you take away from that experience?

SM: That was one of the first big online meetings I attended, and I just thought to myself, it’s not going to work. People are going to be fiddling, or not really listening, or you’re not going to get the full atmosphere of the presentation, but I have to say the presentations were quite good. Some of them, you could tell they were doing them in their home, but everybody presented themselves professionally. They actually had a little more time for questions than normal.

I was pleasantly surprised. I thought, hey, maybe this virtual meeting will work. I actually liked it, it gave me a little more time in between sessions. I could relax at home or in the office, and pick up or drop off as needed.

GSA: Is there anything else you wanted to share?

SM: I dearly love GSA. No one paid me to say that. If you value GSA’s experience and what you get from it, you need to support it. You can’t step back and expect other people to support something without you getting involved. GSA makes it so easy to get involved. So, yes, come and talk to me. I have a job for you.

GSA: Thanks, Shannon. We look forward to seeing you at GSA 2020. I also want to note that Shannon has supervised luminescence studies for 50 graduate and post graduate students. She is always on the lookout for summer interns. 

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.