Scientific American

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When Martha Gilliland, Ph.D., sets a goal, she achieves it. Her accomplishments include advising a President of the United States and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. She has been a geologist, educator, research scientist, a university administrator, and recently retired as Vice President at Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA). But the list goes on: she has served on a national board of directors, is the parent of two, grandparent of six, a hiker and a bicyclist.
Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Dr. Gilliland had “a very loving family, and a very good public education,” she recalls. “I attribute my success to that solid upbringing.” She was 12 years old when the space race began with the launching of Russia’s Sputnik, and she fell in love with science. Math was another favorite subject.
She received a master’s degree in geophysics from Rice University at the age of 23. “Geophysics is about earthquakes, volcanoes, the earth’s magnetic field and the origin of mineral deposits,” she explains. “I wanted to understand how the earth works.”
Dr. Gilliland chose to pursue her doctorate in environmental engineering and systems ecology because “in the late 1960s America had huge pollution issues. My degree relates to cleaning up water and air and dealing with flood control.”
Only eight to 10 percent of people in the field of physical sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy and geology) are women, she notes. “I think women get scared away because of the math involved, and they shouldn’t! Working in the physical sciences can be so exciting and relevant.” She has worked on projects involving the Lake Tahoe Watershed, the Platte River Basin in Nebraska and White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico.
Faculty positions at the University of Oklahoma-Norman and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as well as a three-year Kellogg fellowship on leadership, steered her in a new direction: “I saw a way I could use leadership to impact others positively,” she reflects. She moved to Tucson in 1990 to work at the University of Arizona — first as Dean of the Graduate School and later as Vice Provost and Vice President. “Universities are great places to work,” she enthuses. “You are always being pushed and challenged by the thinking of young minds.”
Dr. Gilliland left Tucson in 1997 to become Provost of Tulane University and then Chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She retired from there in 2005 in part because she wanted to come back to Tucson where her best friends were, as well as engage in her love of hiking and biking.
After her return here, she didn’t stay retired for long: from 2008 to 2010 she was the director of the Literacy for Life Coalition, and in 2010 she became Vice President of RCSA, which provides funding for innovative scientific research at U.S. colleges and universities. Her former position involved overseeing the science programs and communications.
Throughout her career, Dr. Gilliland has shared her expertise by serving on numerous boards and councils. “As you engage nationally, you are appointed to national-level boards,” she relates. “It is a progression.”
In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed her to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a non-partisan panel of 25 science leaders who advised the White House on science and technology issues. “We met with the President probably three or four times in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, which was very exciting.”
She also has won a number of awards including, in 2002, the Hubert H. Humphrey award for top public policy practitioner by the Policy Studies Organization of the American Political Science Association.
On the family side, she says that “I am over-the-top proud of my children. They have great jobs, are great parents and are kind and generous contributors to the world.” Her son Nathan, his wife Teresa and their three children live in San Francisco; daughter Robin and her husband Jason live in Seattle with their three children.
“The transition for me to becoming a grandmother has been especially magical. I have taken my grandchildren canoeing in West Virginia and river rafting in Utah, Colorado and Idaho. The boys and I went on a dinosaur dig in Colorado, and last summer, I took my oldest granddaughter to Thailand where we kayaked, bicycled, hiked and did a home-stay in a tribal village.
“There are outfitters that support these trips we go on together. These trips build the kids’ confidence, and they can learn about — and fall in love with — the outdoors. Plus, it’s extremely enjoyable for me.”
Another magical aspect of this stage of Dr. Gilliland’s life involves her own adventures. “Over the last four years, I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, bicycled across the southern Alps in New Zealand, bicycled part of the Cascades in Oregon and hiked to the base camp of Mt. Everest in Nepal,” she says.
What made her decide to climb mountains? “I remember learning about Mt. Kilimanjaro in my freshman geology class. In 2006, with the support of friends, I saw I could move to a much higher level of fitness. As I did, I thought more about that mountain, so I signed up with a guide to climb it!
“Being fit makes me feel wonderful,” she says. “Plus, to take my grandkids on these adventures, I have to be in shape.”
As to her retirement, she admits that she just wants to enjoy the magic of every day and not have a to-do list. “I will hike more, and spend more time with my family and friends. I also want to learn more about a field I find fascinating: neuroplasticity, which is about the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize its neural pathways.” She also is active on two boards: University of Arizona Health Network and Black and Veatch Corporation, an international engineering and consulting firm.
“I am fortunate to be so healthy, and I expect to live a long time. I believe in constant growth and not living inside constraints, except for my own core values of kindness and generosity. I go back to the following statement every day: ‘The purpose of life is becoming.’ I want to continue to grow.”
                    — Wendy Sweet