Academics at Work: Bereket Haileab places geology at foundation of essential discoveries

Haileab, chair and professor of geology, discusses his research over the years, his passion for geology, and his work with Carleton students.

Daniel Myer ’24 29 March 2024 Posted In:
Professor Bereket Haileab gestures widely as he speaks to a group of students in a forest. All wear neon orange or yellow safety vests.
Professor Bereket Haileab leads a geology field trip in 2023.Photo: Dan Iverson

Bereket Haileab, chair and professor of geology, has been a cornerstone of geology at Carleton since he joined the faculty in 1993. Through his research over the years, he has also helped rejuvenate the study of the guiding principles behind his discipline, and connected that work with the larger Northfield and Carleton communities. His experiences, ranging from studying Rice County’s hydrology to helping chart the founding story of the entire human species, have revealed the role geology plays in multiple major disciplines. Today, he teaches these lessons to new generations of students, and shows that the College’s geology department is a true testament to the quality of a Carleton education.

Professor Bereket Haileab headshot
Professor Bereket Haileab

At first, Haileab’s work had a utilitarian angle. After his undergraduate education at the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, he had the opportunity to study for his PhD with well-known geochemists at the University of Utah. “There,” Haileab said, “I got the skills to do chemical analysis, interpret the results, and write about it.”

These experiences solidified his background in geochemistry, petrology, and mineralogy, which Haileab used to become an exploration geologist with the Geological Survey of Ethiopia. In his role, Haileab surveyed regions of western Ethiopia to find new gold deposits. Although he found the chance to apply his skills in chemical analysis fulfilling, he was interested in getting more involved with the interdisciplinary field of paleoanthropology — the study of human evolution through fossils, cultural artifacts, and more — which his graduate school experiences had introduced him to.

“When I came to Utah, I went to the field every summer and met many [experts in paleoanthropology] there and in meetings,” Haileab said. “My research was used in every place.”

Those who study the origin of the human species, like paleoanthropologists, depend on extensive geological research. With a lot of their modern work based on the fossils of early people or closely related species, scholars and scientists also need those fossils’ detailed geological contexts, including the current state and geologic history of their dig sites. After all, Haileab said, “you don’t find fossils floating by themselves.”

In 1985, Haileab joined a University of Utah research group working in Kenya, where just one year prior, the “Turkana Boy,” a Homo ergaster, was discovered. Haileab’s group needed to map the surrounding Turkana Basin in order to refine the dating process that allowed geologists and paleoanthropologists to prove that the Turkana Boy was 1.6 million years old. Haileab’s research, however, expanded far beyond one basin.

“We found that the volcanic ash from Turkana, to the sediments of the Red Sea cores, to the sediments in the Gulf of Aden, all the way south to Lake Albert in Uganda, to Ethiopia… was all formed originally [in the Turkana Basin], which makes it the most important point,” Haileab said. “For most of the fossiliferous [fossil rich] sediments, we could correlate all of the sedimentary basins and all of the findings temporally.”

In the 1990s, Haileab refined his original discoveries with new evidence and published the results in his dissertation, “Geochemistry, Geochronology and Tephrostratigraphy of Tephra from the Turkana Basin, Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya,” which had profound implications for the research surrounding other prominent fossils. Haileab has maintained close ties over the years to this chapter in his academic career, even traveling to the Turkana Basin last year on an alumni trip with other members of his original team.

Haileab makes sure his Carleton students can create those kinds of close ties as well, even as undergraduates, ensuring that they have extensive field experience and a familiarity with all of geology’s essential tools — including mapping, his personal favorite and a process he believes is necessary for teaching geology effectively.

“For intro geology, I take the students outdoors into the field for every lab,” Haileab said. “Two to three times a term we go on a long weekend trip, which is three to five days, to learn how to make maps and interpret outcrops.”

Haileab has also provided his geology students the opportunity to develop their own passions for a subject that many are experiencing for the first time in his classroom. At the end of each Introduction to Geology course, Haileab advises students as they construct an independent project about a real-world application of basic geology. These projects, which Haileab will proudly showcase to anyone interested, range from the ability of certain kinds of mud to form in Northfield, to the ways that plants utilize local stones to defend themselves against herbivores. The projects engage with a range of relevant geological scholarship and can consist of well over twenty pages of content, which display the results of meticulous, independently developed experiments through detailed tables, charts, and maps. In every chosen topic, students present an incredible degree of dedication.

“These were all projects done within ten weeks,” Haileab said, beaming.

His students over the years consistently remember his enthusiasm for the subject and his ability to mentor the next generation of geology scholars.

“Each week in the lab, he was so thrilled to show us the new rock outcrops that related to our lecture topic,” one student said. “I always found myself getting more excited about rocks than I previously thought was possible. His contagious enthusiasm has the power to turn your day around. You only have to meet Bereket [once] to know that he truly cares about each and every one of his students. Geology major or not, he wants to see everyone succeed.”

“Another unique thing about Bereket is his way of fostering a learning environment that, while still challenging, is, most of all, fun,” another student added. “At Carleton, it can be easy to get lost in the grind, but Bereket teaches you the importance of taking a moment to appreciate the joy and curiosity that come with learning.”

“He knows so much and is so extremely enthusiastic about geology that you can’t help but get really excited about what he’s teaching,” a third student concluded. “I learned a lot and had a lot of fun in his class and during labs. And it’s not just a geology class — Bereket gives out general life advice, almost always humorous, which I appreciated. He says that he loves his students unconditionally, which I felt to be true; I went through a really difficult time last term, and it meant a lot that he was there for me. He’s also just such a funny and quotable guy. Overall, all of that made me more enthusiastic about going to his class and learning the material.”

Haileab’s ability to showcase the wonders of geology, immerse students in the nuanced methods of geological research, and provide firm footing to prevent anyone from slipping through potential cracks has become an important part of the Carleton community. But it’s not just students that Haileab is connected to; some of his projects have brought him in contact with other communities throughout Rice County, too. For example, in 2010, a large flood provided Haileab and his students an unprecedented opportunity to study the region’s hydrology — the flow of water between different levels of the Earth’s surface. In addition to studying publicly owned streams and lakes, Haileab asked farmers and other residents to provide water samples for his students to test.

“We noticed that the water at the bottom of the water table reached [that location] extremely fast,” Haileab said. “Some of the water had been on the surface less than fifty years ago.”

Although it is normal for water to cycle from bodies of water above ground to wells deep below it, the speed at which this occurred in Rice County surprised Haileab. This finding, combined with more conventionally known facts about the county’s water system, provided an essential body of knowledge for all geologists studying the region.

Haileab’s research over the years — from the origin of humanity to the water we drink today — and the way he talks so passionately about it has inspired generations of Carls. And whether their interest lasts for days or decades, Haileab is determined to show them the “magic” of geology.

“No one, or nearly no one, comes to geology [casually],” he said. “They discover geology and are sucked into it. This is true regardless of if it is 1993 or 2023.”

This story is part of a series of interviews with Carleton faculty about their research and engagements with the Carleton community. The Academics at Work series provides faculty the opportunity to talk about the changes they have observed and help lead in their own academic communities, as well as provide further insight into the work they do at Carleton.