Even as a child, Sharon Mosher knew the path she wanted to take. Whether she was picking up rocks on family vacations or attaching her bicycle pedals to a motor so that she could swirl chemicals to grow geodes, Mosher understood early on that geology would be her life.
The path would take her from her hometown of Freeport, Illinois, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for her bachelor’s degree, to Brown University for her master’s, and back to Illinois for her doctorate. From there, she would launch a career as a structural geologist and academic that would ultimately cast her as a national leader in the field and the head of one of the country’s preeminent geosciences schools.
Mosher has been dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences for 10 years, about two-thirds of the school’s existence. She took over the institution in its early formative years, building the infrastructure of a modern college and pushing an interdisciplinary and crossdisciplinary approach to research and education that is now synonymous with the school’s identity. Along the way, she helped build a juggernaut. The Jackson School is the largest geosciences program in the country. It is ranked No. 1 in geology by the U.S. News & World Report 2019 edition of “Best Graduate Schools,” and has been regularly ranked among the most scientifically productive academic geosciences institutions in the world by the Nature Index.
Mosher’s leadership has pushed the Jackson School to new heights, but now it’s time for someone else to keep the momentum going. The longest-serving dean in the school’s history is getting ready to step down and return to the faculty. To Mosher, it’s simply the right time. She’s helped build and stabilize the school so her successor is on solid footing to take it to even higher levels. And she has things she wants to do. She can’t wait to get back to her research, and she’s looking forward to wrapping up the two major national geosciences education initiatives that she is leading for the National Science Foundation. One involves developing and implementing a community vision for the future of undergraduate geosciences education; the other is working to ensure graduate students are prepared for the workforce of the future.
After that, Mosher said there are many possibilities, although she cannot see herself taking a job somewhere else. Ultimately, she said, her next moves will depend on how the chessboard of her life evolves.
“When I was little, my dad taught me to play chess. It teaches you to look in[to] the future and make plans that depend on what the other player does,” she said. “You have to have multiple options open. I’ve lived my life that way, where I always know that there are different options at different steps.”
That thoughtful and strategic outlook on life and decision-making is reflected in the institution she has helped build and lead during the past decade. When Mosher steps down, she will leave behind an institution unique in its depth, breadth and quality.
“The Jackson School is truly in a class of its own, and that is due in large part to Sharon Mosher,” said Gregory L. Fenves, president of The University of Texas at Austin. “But it is the personal impact Sharon has had as a mentor and champion of her students that defines her leadership.”
When the latest crop of graduate students showed up at the Holland Family Student Center on a scorching day in August 2019 for the field trip that would kick off their Jackson School experience, Mosher was there, as always, welcoming and prepping them for two days in the field. From there, the group loaded up on the bus to see some of the geological wonders of Central Texas — Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, Inks Lake and Inner Space Caverns.
The trip was, as incoming master’s student Bethany Rysak described it, “ridiculously hot” and “awesome.” She wasn’t surprised to see Mosher there every step of the way, explaining the geology and reminding students to hydrate and apply sunscreen. That’s because Rysak met Mosher some weeks before at a prospective student weekend.
She remembers a nice, unassuming woman introducing herself, welcoming Rysak to the school and chatting before moving on. Rysak realized she had been talking with the school’s dean only after her potential adviser informed her.
“I kind of freaked out,” Rysak admits.
But she got the idea right away that the dean of the Jackson School was someone who wanted students to feel at home on campus. That was vitally important to Rysak, who did her undergraduate work at Trinity University in San Antonio and was feeling a little lost as she made the transition from a small, private college to a massive, public, flagship university. The field trip, she noted, helped ease the transition considerably.
“This makes the university feel just as small as my undergraduate was,” she said.“Getting to know everyone’s names and faces and a little bit about them. It really helps.”
That’s not by accident. That’s exactly the type of environment Mosher has worked to build as dean and why she instituted the field trips for new graduate students and a similar trip that incoming undergraduates would undergo a week later. The undergraduates would also be accompanied by the dean and a host of faculty members.
The Jackson School that Rysak and her fellow students are entering has the outgoing dean’s fingerprints all over it. Ensuring the school provides a top education that helps build and prepare future generations of geoscientists has been one of her overarching goals.
For instance, Mosher led the fundraising effort to build the bright, airy Holland Family Student Center that is now a mainstay of the Jackson Geological Sciences Building. She established in-house student services and career services. She brought on tutors for calculus, chemistry and physics. She launched the Jackson Scholars Program to provide leadership and study abroad opportunities for undergraduates. She created a writer-in- residence position to help students learn the communication skills needed for the modern geosciences workforce. She increased experiential learning, and undergraduate student opportunities in research and expanded overall field programs and experiences — something of a mantra for a dean who insists geoscientists are built in the field.
“The field is just the best place to see and understand geology,” Mosher said. “It’s the place where everything you have seen and learned comes together and you have that ‘aha’ moment. You have to do lab work, geochemistry, geophysics or computer modeling. But if you haven’t actually seen it in the field, you don’t really understand it.”
Mosher has worked hard to build the kind of cohesive, family atmosphere that welcomes new students and keeps alumni connected to the school. It all seems pretty seamless now. But when she took over in 2009, and during the two years before when she served as department chair, there was very little of a schoolwide structure in place.
That’s because, prior to the formation of the Jackson School, the UT College of Natural Sciences took care of all of the basics for geosciences students. That ended when geosciences broke off and formed its own school in 2005.
Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Administration Nicole Evans was there in the early days. She remembers scrambling to find IT support to make sure classes were ready to go for the new school year, or to find facilities staffers to help keep the building functioning. Mosher hired Evans to work in the department as office manager before moving her over to the dean’s office.
Evans became one of the school’s first assistant deans. Mosher also created an assistant dean position for financial affairs and one for student affairs, and associate dean positions for academic affairs and for research.
The operational and administrative issues probably seem utterly mundane to those not involved, but they are vital to keeping a school running, let alone thriving.
“It was under her watch that we became a fully functional university-integrated school,” said Associate Dean for Research David Mohrig, who joined the school in 2006. “That’s really quite an accomplishment.”
Evans and others credit Mosher’s ability to keep the big picture crystal clear while working through all the details, and to look several steps ahead as her father’s chess lessons had taught her. They also point to an uncanny capacity to understand budgets as key to Mosher’s success. This is particularly important at the Jackson School, which has a unique combination of soft money research units and hard money academics, and operates on 270 endowments, all of which have specific requirements on how they can be spent.
Evans recalled meetings about planning and finance in those early years where they were trying to make sense of all the budgetary constraints and needs of the growing school. She said she was consistently astounded by Mosher’s mastery of the massive budget spreadsheet and the hundreds of funding sources.
“Sharon was always planning ahead,” Evans said. “She would be like, ‘no, we can’t use that [account]. I’m saving that one because it will earn enough in two years that we can replace all the microscopes, and then when we’re doing that, we can fix that classroom the following month.’ We would have a list of stuff that people had asked about, and she was thinking about all the stuff they haven’t asked about.”
Mosher is the Jackson School’s fourth dean, but she’s really the first to serve in the position for any length of time.
When the school launched, William Fisher agreed to act as its inaugural dean. Fisher would serve a year before Eric Barron, who is now president of Penn State University, would come on board after a nationwide search. Mosher, who served under Barron as a department chair, credits him with helping show the fledgling school how to actually be a school. But Barron moved on after serving less than two years, leaving a short but controversial legacy that involved committing much of the school’s ready cash on new hires and buying the E.P. Schoch building. After Barron, Chip Groat served as interim dean for a year before the university decided on Mosher.
Mosher took the helm of a school that was rocky in terms of finances, as well as identity and culture. The latter two are foundational and ongoing challenges for the Jackson School that stem from its unique origin.
When Jack and Katie Jackson donated their massive estate to the UT Geology Foundation, it allowed the university to bring together its three main geosciences units — the Bureau of Economic Geology, the Department of Geological Sciences and the Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) — under one umbrella. While great in theory, uniting the units proved challenging. All three had vastly different and strong cultures, identities and business models. There’s also the matter of geography to deal with. The department is on the main campus (and in the same building as the dean’s offices), and the bureau and UTIG are on the J.J. Pickle Research Campus about 10 miles away.
“We needed new leadership that was going to dig into the program and work flows to bring the three institutions together, while also preserving their unique qualities and contributions,” said Annell Bay, a Jackson School Advisory Council member. “Sharon possessed the leadership strength and vision to drive the best decisions for the university, the Jackson School and the students.”
Mosher made it a point to break down the barriers created by distance and history. Much of it just boiled down to legwork, she said. She talked to everyone in the school to understand the kind of research they did and how they were funded, and she ran meetings to bring people of similar interests together. She encouraged research scientists to take part on the graduate studies committee and to supervise students. She surveyed all the researchers and faculty members about their scientific interests. And she helped organize the school’s research into six themes that helped bring together scientists who wanted to work on similar problems. And she still spends one to two days a week working out of the Pickle campus.
Her goal was simple and is ongoing: to create a transparent environment where people could come together to tackle big scientific issues.
“Once you get people to know what others are doing, you get people who recognize that they could work together on really big science questions rather than the smaller ones they could do by themselves,” Mosher said.
Scott Tinker, who has led the bureau since 2000, said that Mosher’s success in this area came from strengthening the units’ natural connections instead of trying to force connections that weren’t there or trying to run the school like some kind of “superdepartment.”
He pointed to examples such as the Rapid Response program, the Equinor Fellowships (previously Statoil) and the Shell-UT Unconventional Research program, which tie the units together and strengthen the school’s overall mission. He also applauded Mosher for working hard to understand the needs of researchers in the units and advocating for them. This included continuing the practice that Barron had put into place of funding researchers for up to two months a year, and supporting technical job tracks. Mosher also persuaded the university to create an emeritus title for senior research scientists, and said she was extremely proud when UTIG’s Cliff Frohlich became the first in UT’s history to earn the title.
“Sharon helped make sure researchers were recognized for what they did for the school and the university,” Tinker said.“She grew into a very strong dean. And I mean that in the best way. We all bring our own experiences to a job, and Sharon evolved over the decade from professor to dean. We grew together, and I have tremendous respect for her leadership and what the school has accomplished.”
Leading an institution like the Jackson School is full of unique challenges and takes a special set of skills and traits. Mosher learned many along the way, but some were seemingly with her from the beginning.
Mosher describes herself as a “tomboy” growing up, which dovetails well with her persona as a young rock hound. She regularly planned her family’s vacations as a kid, showing a propensity for taking charge and charting a course that would characterize much of her career. She would pore over maps, which she loved, and plan routes that maximized the opportunity to collect rocks.
She worked a number of jobs throughout high school, realizing early on that she didn’t like waitressing or working in a curtain rod factory. She transitioned to being a Fuller Brush salesperson (door-to-door brush and cleaning product sales) and became so successful that by her senior year, she had six adults working for her.
“I was good at managing people and getting them to work harder,” she remembers.
The experience of door-to-door sales helped Mosher develop another skill that would serve her well.
“The idea of asking for money doesn’t bother me,” she said. “You get the door slammed in your face enough and you get used to it.”
The early lessons paid off. During her tenure as dean, Mosher helped create 74 endowments and raised $86 million for endowed chairs, scholarships, graduate fellowships and programmatic support.
Although Mosher knew she wanted to be a geologist from a young age, it took her a while to settle on a career path and specialty. Her initial lean was toward industry. Her senior thesis involved designing a rig that deforms thin sections of granite (or for her undergraduate job, cement) while allowing a researcher to study the sections under a microscope to look at crack propagation. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she spent eight months backpacking and camping solo throughout the western United States and Canada, looking at, of course, geology.
Mosher went to Brown University with the idea of becoming an igneous petrologist, but she found her calling on the first field trip. She fell in love with the Pennsylvanian quartzite conglomerates from the Narragansett Basin in Rhode Island and decided her future lay in structural geology. Using the conglomerate, she became the first to demonstrate that pressure solution was an important deformation mechanism — and she was the first to quantify its effects. Although she didn’t stay at Brown for long, her love of New England geology led her to continue research there later with her own graduate students, where they proved that New England was affected by a major orogeny in the Pennsylvanian and Permian periods.
Mosher had a number of job offers in both industry and academia before finishing her doctorate, but she settled on UT on the advice of her adviser, Dennis Wood. He told her that if Professor Bob Folk was at UT, it had to be a good school. During the back-and-forth of the job negotiations, UT Professor William Muehlberger contacted Wood to ask whether Mosher would be up to teaching a field camp.
“He told him, ‘she could run your field camp,’” Mosher remembered with a laugh.
Ironically, she did run it for 15 years after taking the job and was eventually succeeded in the position by her husband, Distinguished Senior Lecturer Mark Helper, who has been running it ever since.
“You don’t realize how challenging it is to organize and run field camps until you have to do it yourself,” Helper said. “But field camp is one of the most formative and important experiences in a student’s education, and I was proud to take it over.”
For that first year, Mosher arrived at The University of Texas at Austin with no time to spare. She finished her thesis in May, defended on June 1, drove to Texas over the weekend, and then took off to teach field camp on Monday.
Her teaching assistants included Kitty Milliken, who is now a senior research scientist at the bureau. Milliken said she realized Mosher was a great field scientist and instructor from the first day she knew her. But it was something else that made a lasting impression on her as a young geoscientist.
“Neither I, nor, I imagine, my co-TA, Vicki Price, had ever had a female science instructor, much less a geology professor,” she said. “To put it mildly, when Sharon turned up at field camp, we were absolutely thrilled to be her TAs and to know that when we got home, there would be a woman professor in the department. She wasn’t much older than we were, and here she was, doing something that perhaps we’d imagined but never actually seen.”
Mosher was the first female faculty member in the department (which has had female lecturers in the early 20th century). Like most female geoscientists of her generation, she was one of the very few in her school or workplace, but Mosher said she never had a problem navigating in the male-dominated profession. That doesn’t mean she didn’t run into sexism. She has plenty of stories.
When she was an undergrad, for instance, she had a job in a chemical engineering lab. A faculty member complained, telling Mosher’s supervisor that he needed to fire her because his students couldn’t concentrate with a woman in the lab. Mosher’s boss refused, commenting that Mosher had no problem working around the male students and that the faculty member should consider seeking more female students.
Mosher has been active in gender and equity issues as dean, implementing comprehensive workplace guidelines and working to diversify both the student body and faculty. But her advice to budding scientists has always been not to think of themselves as a male or female scientist or to put any other qualifiers on it, but to simply be the best scientist you can be.
Still, her presence seems to have a major impact on female students around the school. Chris Symons, a master’s student of Mosher’s who arrived on campus in 1993 and later did a postdoc with Mosher, is a perfect example. Symons had the opportunity to work with Mosher on her research on the evolution of the Pacific-Australian plate boundary in the Macquarie Ridge Complex south of New Zealand, something the two may revisit after Mosher steps down.
Like all of Mosher’s students, Symons spent time at Mosher’s house, particularly during the weekly gettogethers that Mosher then had for her team, which Symons said were nine or 10 students at the time. She also remembers babysitting Mosher’s daughters so her supervisor could review Symons’ work. The way Mosher balanced her work and family life, while being an incredibly productive and driven professional, was striking and made a major impression on the young graduate student.
“She certainly was a role model because here’s a woman who was, you know, was married with kids, had a successful career, was happy, well adjusted,” Symons said.
It has been more than 40 years since Mosher first stepped on campus at UT as an assistant professor. In that time, she has taught thousands of students and advised about 70, sometimes taking on as many as 15 graduate students at a time. Advising students allowed Mosher to work on structure and tectonic problems throughout the world, which makes choosing her most exciting field experience difficult.
“Was it riding horseback across the Andes in Tierra del Fuego?” she said, “or trips on fishing boats during storms in the Straits of Magellan? Or navigating around elephant seals and millions of penguins on Macquarie Island? So many great field adventures with students.”
In her early years, during the oil boom of the early 1980s, the undergraduate population at the Jackson School shot up to well over 800 students, about triple what it is now, and the department was bursting at the seams. Mosher said it was common back then to have students lined up in the hallways past the elevators during office hours, and she would have to hold office hours in the Boyd Auditorium during exam weeks.One of her goals as dean has been to diversify the education offered by the school so enrollment doesn’t balloon and deflate with industry fluctuations.
Professor Mark Cloos has known Mosher longer than most. He served as her undergraduate assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign when she was a graduate student, and then joined her on the faculty at UT when he was hired in 1981.
They alternated teaching the undergraduate and graduate students’ structural geology classes into the early 1990s. He estimates that Mosher has personally taught the basics of structural geology to at least 1,000 students. Cloos remembers the two working together in 1985 to persuade the faculty to build a zircon U/Pb geochronology lab. He said Mosher’s structural petrology course — ductile structure — which featured microscopic analysis of deformed rocks in thin section, was a mainstay for 30 years for all graduate students interested in understanding how rocks can flow.
Cloos said 10 years serving as a dean is a remarkable accomplishment. He attributes Mosher’s success to a combination of attributes.
“She’s a really good people person, and she’s very engaged,” he said. “Obviously she’s got good national connections, as she was president of GSA (Geological Society of America) and AGI (American Geosciences Institute). But the bigger thing is she’s someone who’s always in there, working just as hard as anybody else to make things go. Most deans are much more the delegator type.”
Many people marvel at the set of skills Mosher has employed as dean, but she didn’t get them by accident. Throughout her career she deliberately took on leadership roles and challenges when she saw an opportunity to make positive changes.
“My whole life, I have been building that: that background, the abilities, the knowledge,” she said. “And I started young. My first major role was as the first elected chair of GSA’s newly formed Structure/Tectonics Division shortly after I arrived at UT.”
One of the very formative experiences during her career was taking over the presidency of GSA. She served as its president in 2000–2001. It was a difficult time for the organization, which was in the red and bleeding money. She ran the organization from Austin but would fly to Boulder weekly to continue the work of turning the ship around.
“She put GSA back on a track, and the kinds of techniques that she put into existence are still used today, so that even in the industry downturn, GSA has maintained quite a good budget,” said Robbie Gries, a longtime friend of Mosher’s and a member of the Jackson School Advisory Council who served as GSA president in 2018–2019.
Many of GSA’s well-known programs are part of Mosher’s legacy. She credits much of her leadership success at GSA and AGI to what she learned through the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, where she is a longtime member and former leader.
It was also during that time, the early 2000s, that Mosher and Gries, who was then president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, started GeoScienceWorld. The service works with societies, institutions and researchers around the world to provide a single source of access to 46 scholarly journals, more than 2,100 e-books, and over 4 million records in the GeoRef database.
Here again, Mosher took direct leadership, running the Washington, D.C.-based organization as CEO for several years after its formation. In addition to being transformational for geoscience researchers, the service has returned more than $38 million to membership societies since it launched in 2005.
Throughout her career, one of the only things that has made Mosher hit the pause button on work, and even excuse herself from meetings, has been a call from one of her daughters, Sarah and Lisa.
Given their parents’ love of geology, the two girls nearly grew up in the field. Lisa Helper followed her parents into the geosciences, entering industry after earning a master’s from the Jackson School in 2012. Looking back, Helper understands how incredibly busy her mother was while she was growing up, but she said that it didn’t get in the way of their relationship. On the contrary, she said her parents’ love of geology meant hours upon hours of quality time together, where Mosher, of course, slipped in education. This included taking the girls to field camp nearly every year as they were growing up, as well as taking time to see natural wonders as a family.
“She would always have us stop at road cuts and explain the geology, and during our car trips she’d always ask us questions that now, I realize as an adult, were prompting us to make observations and come up with hypotheses,” Helper said. “I thought she was just asking us fun questions about nature. But I think she was kind of formulating our thought process and creativity.”
The lessons haven’t stopped since the girls grew up.
“Even up to a week ago, I was drilling a well and something unexpected happened — she was there to bounce ideas off of at 3 in the morning,” she said. “That’s not something that everyone can say. I’m very aware of how unique that is.”
Joe Reese, a professor at Edinburgh University in the Department of Geosciences, studied for his doctorate under Mosher from 1988 to 1993.
He worked on metamorphism and ductile deformation in the Llano uplift, an area where Mosher would publish foundational studies on the Precambrian Grenville of Texas.
Like many of her students, Reese has stayed close to Mosher over the years, and said he gets a kick out of people’s awed reaction when they realize she was his faculty adviser. Reese raves about her ability as a scientist and educator, but, like many others, said it’s her empathy and ability to read people that truly made an impact on his life. He remembers, for instance, rushing back to Austin to defend his thesis after accepting his first faculty position. He was, to say the least, nervous, and Mosher knew it. But she was able to set him at ease with a simple question.
“She said, ‘Joe, what kind of beer would you like for your party?’” Reese said. “And once she said that, I thought, you know I might actually get through this.”
Now that she’s getting ready to step down as dean, Mosher has had some time to reflect on all she’s accomplished. It’s been gratifying, she said, watching everyone at the school come together to build a strong community and elevate the science and education to the world-class level it now achieves. She particularly loves attending graduation and hearing parents rave about how much their children loved the Jackson School and how they felt like they were part of a very supportive community.
“That didn’t happen by accident,” Mosher said. “When I became dean, I had goals for this place, and I really feel like I have achieved the goals that I had set. Now there are new goals, but that’s for somebody else.”