A Passion for Science

28 November 2018

Ailsa McCulloch ’12

As a student playing varsity volleyball and training for the Carleton Triathlon, Ailsa McCulloch ’12 always liked active, hands-on work — so science at Carleton was the perfect fit for her.

“I came to Carleton knowing I wanted to go into a discipline of science,” McCulloch says, “I took a lot of classes and was broadly interested in environmental policy, but then I took a geology class and fell in love. I really liked classes that melded the technical side of science and the policy side.”

Part of what made her fall in love with geology, she says, was exploring fossils in Professor Clint Cowan’s paleobiology class and seeing in rocks how life’s origins and humankind’s development were integrated with the earth in geological time. She also loved having a majority of classes outside in the field, doing hands-on learning.

Geology at Carleton emphasizes field studies and three-dimensional thinking, she says, and the curricula in all the rigorous science courses she took required a high level of critical analysis. For example, in hydrology with visiting professor and Carleton alumnus Isaac Larsen ’01, McCulloch and her classmates looked at Aguascalientes Valley in Mexico, an area that had depleted its groundwater supply. “We not only studied water supply but also the social effects of dwindling water supplies,” McCulloch says.

Also importantly, Carleton’s liberal arts approach values writing and encourages students to broaden their horizons beyond their chosen discipline. McCulloch says her improved writing skills and the insight she gained through philosophy, sociology, and environmental ethics classes have a large impact on her current work as a scientist.

Since graduation, McCulloch’s education has taken her through wetland muck to gather water quality samples, into canoes on lakes and rivers to take core sediment samples, and onto construction sites to inspect installation of large water mains for cities. Recently her career has shifted focus from geology to civil and environmental engineering with Stantec Consulting Services in St. Paul, Minnesota, a role which she says still draws heavily on her science education.

“Thankfully, I had a lot of those tools in my tool belt because Carleton had taught me how to learn,” she says. “Science at Carleton does a phenomenal job of that.”