Fund honors legacy of geoscientist who started Wallops Island course

David Kubarek
April 06, 2021

There’s an old adage that goes if you can instill in someone a piece of advice, a bit of knowledge, then through them that lives forever. What you started passes on through generations.

That’s fitting for the life and legacy of former Penn State geoscientist Al Guber, who died in January after leaving a lasting mark for decades on his students.

There’s perhaps no greater example than the students who took part in Guber’s 10-week “live-in” field program to study the coastal and marine ecosystems at Wallops Island located on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Many former students who attended Guber’s course in 1977 still keep in touch — even organizing a 40-year reunion in 2017 — and are grateful for the impact Guber had on their lives.

Al Guber Wallops Reunion

Former students of Al Guber, who attended his Wallops Island class in 1977, visited the tiny island on the Eastern shore of Virginia again for a 40th reunion in 2017. 

IMAGE: Penn State

That gratitude was paid back with the establishment of the Al Guber Program Fund, which promotes experiential learning opportunities within the college. The fund is expected to increase and later provide direct financial assistance for students within the college.

Kent Newsham, 1978 geosciences, is one of the members of the Wallops class of 1977. He said the course was a chance for him to get to work closely with Guber and other faculty members, learn the rigors and ropes of field work and research and to advance his geosciences career.

Newsham, who is a chief petrophysicist at Oxy, said Guber’s dedication to the course and to his students was great for those interested in the field but came at the expense of Guber’s own career.

“He had this tremendous vision and yet as an untenured professor at the time it cost him personally. I’m convinced of that,” Newsham said. “But on the flip side, I think everybody recognized Al as our consummate educator, and we want to honor and celebrate him for that.”

Al Guber 1977

Eugene Williams, left, Robert Schmaltz and Al Guber work out of Wallops Island in 1977. Guber's former students recently created a fund in his honor.

IMAGE: Penn State

Island research

For years, beginning in the late 1970s, Guber oversaw the Wallops Island course. As director, each year he interviewed more than 600 interested students for about 60 slots. Those selected students pulled from a diverse variety of disciplines traveled to the island to take part in a week of condensed coursework, followed by field and group work along the Wallops and Assateague coastlines.

The course was a chance to learn about coastal ecology and work with others outside of their disciplines, much like they would do in the field.

Brian Dade, 1978, mineral economics, Earth sciences said the course was an intense exposure to marine engineering, coastal oceanography, geology and ecology. He said the course encouraged students to design and conduct their own field studies, rather than simply handing them assignments. That process — and the chance to work with scientists and be exposed to the research — helped in his path to becoming a geoscientist. He returned to Penn State for his master’s degree, 1983, geology, and retired in 2016 as an associate professor of Earth sciences at Dartmouth.

“These were all hugely formative experiences for me, ones in which Professor Al Guber figured large as a dedicated educator, a dedicated scientist with broad-ranging interests, and a thoughtful mentor and ‘troop leader’ for his students,” Dade said.

Janet Kappmeyer, 1979 geosciences, remembers her first year at Penn State taking a course with Guber. She originally dreamed of majoring in music — driven by her love of the flute — but “fell back” on an interest in geosciences. Guber’s passion for the science solidified hers, and she changed her major to geology immediately.

“He just explained things so clearly and made all aspects of geology really interesting to me,” Kappmeyer said. “He spent a fair bit of time on plate tectonics, which I just found so incredible. And it was fairly early on in the acceptance of that theory.”

In that course, Guber showed pictures of some of the world’s most fascinating geological sites. One slide included Wallops Island, and that caught Kappmeyer’s attention. She made a note to apply for the Wallops program as soon as she was eligible, her sophomore year.

Her work at Wallops led to a career as an environmental consultant after working a brief time with Exxon’s offshore exploration group. About 15 years ago, she earned a degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis, and now works for Constellation Brands, a major beverage producer. Ironically, home winemaking is a hobby she and Guber shared.

Kappmeyer said she learned a lot during her Wallops experience. That’s something she had a chance to thank Guber for personally before his passing. One thing that stuck with her most was the concept of the knock-on effect. That’s when a seemingly small change to the environment can cascade down to create massive changes elsewhere.

At Wallops Island, an example of the knock-on effect they learned was when offshore jetties catch southward-bound sediment they rob the coastline to the south and create massive erosion. It’s similar to when an educator captures your attention and puts your life on a completely different career path. And the concept is something that drove her career, particularly focusing on the environmental impact of engineering projects.

“Everything is hyperconnected,” Kappmeyer said. “And when you perturb the system in one place, you can really force change in another place. I think, for me, that was probably the key takeaway. I mean, there were so many wonderful, little tidbits that we learned. But I think that overall overarching issue was really prevalent, at least for me as a physical scientist.”

Contributions to the Al Guber Program Fund will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st-Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

  • Al Guber Wallops Reunion

    Former students of Al Guber, who attended his Wallops Island class in 1977, visited the tiny island on the Eastern shore of Virginia again for a 40th reunion in 2017. 

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Al Guber 1977

    Eugene Williams, left, Robert Schmaltz and Al Guber work out of Wallops Island in 1977. Guber's former students recently created a fund in his honor.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated April 29, 2021