Truly Interdisciplinary

Dr. Fred Andrus
Dr. Fred Andrus

Academicians often emphasize the remarkable results following interdisciplinary research and teaching. Dr. Fred Andrus’s career is a textbook example of how that integration of knowledge from different disciplines can lead to exciting discoveries.

Andrus, a professor of geological sciences and chair of the College’s Department of Geological Sciences, is noted for his research in the chemistry of ancient mollusks and seashells. That work has enabled Andrus and his research team to make use of artifacts found at ancient Peruvian burial grounds to understand and help predict climate change phenomena such as El Niño.

As part of this work, Andrus has worked with geologists from other universities and the U.S. Geological Survey and coauthored work with colleagues outside of his discipline in anthropology and chemistry. Andrus traces his ability to make such connections across disciplines to his childhood.

When he was young, Andrus said he was always collecting things from nature—deer antlers, bones, seashells, and anything that washed up on the shores of his native Charleston, South Carolina. Living in a coastal area, he was fascinated with fishermen, sailors, and anyone who made their living interacting with nature. The relationship between nature and human interaction fascinated him, and the study of science fueled this natural curiosity. One of his earliest scientific experiments involved using his mother’s nail polish to paint numbers on the backs of turtles to see if he could track them. His rudimentary study didn’t yield promising results, but his love of nature persisted.

In a family that included a doctor, a NASA mathematician, and a plant geneticist, it seemed as though Andrus was destined to become a scientist. But he tried a different path at first. He followed his high school garage band to Athens, Georgia, which, with Athens-based R.E.M. at its peak, was the epicenter of the alternative rock scene. Andrus quickly found that being a musician in such a competitive environment wasn’t easy.

“Science was actually comparatively easier than being a rock star, so I fell back on my childhood experience,” he said. “If you had asked me as a little kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said I wanted to be in The Clash, or I wanted to be a scientist.”

Andrus earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a specialization in archeology from the University of Georgia (UGA). The draw of collecting artifacts and relating them to human experience piqued his interest. After graduation, Andrus worked as a private contractor conducting cultural resource management archeology, where he excavated construction sites before building began to determine if there was anything of archeological value.

During this time he also became a regular at deep-sea fishing tournaments and began noticing that at tournament weigh-ins marine biologists often came to collect samples from the specimens. In particular, they would remove the ear bones of the fish.

The biologists explained to Andrus that fish ear bones, analogous to the rings on a tree, can be used to determine a fish’s age and what years were nutrient rich and nutrient poor for the fish, among other information. This method, the backbone of fisheries management science, intrigued Andrus. Shortly after learning about this technique, he was excavating a site and a familiar artifact showed up: fish ear bones.

The serendipitous timing spurred Andrus to reconnect with a former professor at UGA and pursue a master’s degree. For his master’s thesis he studied the shells of various clams and oysters, which are the same as fish bones from a mineralogical standpoint, to learn about their climate and environment. He became well versed in a technique that involves measuring oxygen isotopes to make inferences about a specimen’s environment, which would be a continuing thread in Andrus’s future research.

“At that point, I still would not have called myself a geologist,” Andrus said. “I had a bachelor’s and master’s in anthropology, so for my PhD I switched to geology because if I took the chemistry of the shells a little further, I could do a lot more.”

Oxygen isotopes in some minerals, such as those found in shells, vary according to the temperature in which they formed. With this information, Andrus can determine temperature variations during a creature’s lifetime. He has done extensive research on seashells and clams from Peru, considered to be one of the cradles of ancient civilization, and has conducted research throughout the southeastern United States, Alaska, and Central and South America. He has also expanded his research to include studying deep-sea coral and scallop fossils found in Antarctica.

In each of his research endeavors, Andrus says he employs his interdisciplinary background, and this is reflected in the type of graduate students he attracts. He has worked with students from environmental science, chemistry, archeology, marine science, and other academic fields.

“Too often I think scientific questions fall between the cracks if they don’t fit neatly into preconceived notions of what a certain scientist, like a chemist or physicist, does,” Andrus said.

In addition to his research, Andrus said one of the biggest surprises about his chosen career path has been teaching, which he has grown to love. Andrus enjoys teaching introductory level courses the most because he can teach students something they may know very little about.

“What bums me out is that when you ask some people what science is, they often say it’s a bunch of facts and figures,” Andrus said. “But science is really a way to figure stuff out, and the figuring stuff out part is fun.”

“I love when a student comes in with a question that they say they don’t understand. I love being able to say, well neither does anybody else. So let’s sort it out.”