Success Stories

Geologist alumnus makes his mark

Gregg Swayze

Gregg Swayze fell in love with geology when his older brother, a geology student at Grand Valley State University, took him on a trip to Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. As a high school senior, Swayze was fascinated with the thought of pursuing a profession that allowed him to be outdoors and practice science simultaneously. 

Swayze followed in his brother's footsteps and headed to Grand Valley to study geology. "I loved Grand Valley," said Swayze, a Northville, Michigan, native. "It was the best time I ever had at an education institution and the Geology Department gave me many great opportunities."

Swayze jump-started his geological career with the help of his advisor, Tom Hendrix, who ran the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, a program that places undergraduate students in summer internships with the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Swayze got an internship working in Glacier National Park after he graduated from Grand Valley in 1982.

Swayze then earned a master's degree at the Colorado School of Mines and got a job at the USGS in the Water Quality Division, working with atomic emission spectroscopy to look at metal contamination in water reservoirs in California. Swayze soon found another job within the USGS Federal Center in the geophysics branch, where he still works today, looking at the bumps and wiggles in near-infrared reflectance spectra, which he uses as "fingerprints" to remotely identify minerals on both the Earth and Mars. 

"I wear different hats," said Swayze. "I like to call them my planetary and terrestrial hats."

Over the last two decades, Swayze has done some pretty remarkable things, including identifying minerals on Mars with an orbital spectrometer that indicates promising places to look for past life on the planet. He is currently working on a proposal for a future rover mission to Mars to study these minerals in an ancient evaporated lake bed.

Swayze also used spectroscopy to monitor asbestos in dust from ground zero after September 11 at the site of the fallen World Trade Center. Swayze and his team submitted a report stating that the dust from the scene was nearly as caustic as drain cleaner. Swayze's work was recognized publicly when he appeared on the National Geographic Channel series "America's Wild Places" in an episode entitled "Canyonlands." In the episode, Swayze worked with volunteers in Canyonlands National Park in Utah to examine the mineral composition of pigments in pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon. 
When Swayze isn't studying minerals on Mars, publishing papers on asbestos, or identifying minerals, he is spending time with his wife, Sheryl, and their two boys, Neal and Jeff, at their home in Denver, Colorado. The Swayze family enjoys many outdoor activities, including rollerblading, cross country skiing, and camping. Swayze also co-leads the annual science fair at Blue Heron Elementary in Littleton, Colorado, and is the assistant Cub Master for Timberline District Pack 809.

by Heather DeWitt

This story was filed with the tags: Impressive Jobs, Research after GVSU, Science, Undergraduate Alumni