“I’m a pretty curious person overall.” This is how Dr. Benjamin Rendall begins his answer when asked why he chose to pursue his PhD in geology. His career to date certainly supports that statement, a journey that has taken him from his childhood in New Hampshire, around the world seeking answers to questions locked in landscapes of stone, and ultimately back to Brewster, the high school he graduated from in 2007 where he now serves as a member of the science faculty. In his work as the Director of Field Term he strives to inspire that same spark of curiosity in the students he teaches. “I always admired colleagues who had a deep grasp on their subject area,” he says. “I also like to set goals that seem just out of reach until they are accomplished. Doing a PhD seemed like it would check both of those boxes.”
Ben’s road to earning his doctorate began with a side project on carbonate rocks while an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University. This work resulted in his first publication, from which he “caught the bug” for a career as a research scientist. He later earned his Masters in Geology from Idaho State University, and was soon recruited by ExxonMobil’s Upstream Research Company based in Houston Texas, where he planned to work until his wife Estella graduated law school. A return to school was always his plan. Ben began his PhD in 2017 at the University of Texas in Austin, and spent the first three years collecting field data and designing projects for his dissertation. Two years into that experience, Ben became a new dad with the birth of Robin, heavily influencing the way he went about his work. Then came 2020. The pandemic hit and UT went fully remote with classes. Ben and his young family sought refuge from the Texas summer heat and moved back to N.H.
The process was unconventional. “My path to a PhD was certainly non-traditional, but that is kind of fitting for me, I guess.” A family relocation 2,000 miles away from Austin, a new job as a faculty member at his alma mater, and the designing and launching of a completely new initiative in Brewster Field Term were all unexpected twists to the usual narrative. Ben has juggled it all, writing a 500-page dissertation while teaching new research methods to Brewster students in AP seminar and overseeing the execution of Field Term, a residential immersive program set in the Belknap Mountains, right next door to his childhood home, and the same setting where his initial passions for exploring nature were formed.
The crossover between his pursuit of a PhD and his work with Brewster have sparked other opportunities for joy and community. When Ben was set to defend his thesis virtually by Zoom call, he invited a few Brewster faculty and students to join in, and when word spread that his defense was successful, the community raised their voice to celebrate the accomplishment. Ben responded to the praise with characteristic humility. In a message to the community, he shared his gratitude for the support and added, “This journey started 20 years ago when I arrived at Brewster as a freshman, so it is a little surreal to bring it full circle and finish up back in the same ecosystem of curiosity and passion for learning.” He also cited Brewster’s Dean of Innovation Jonathan Fouser as an inspiration and the person who “first taught me to use the outdoors as a classroom.”
Article Published in Geology
Ben’s doctoral research also led to some unexpected discoveries, one of which earned him public recognition and publication in the May issue of the top-ranked journal, Geology. Ben’s work in the Bahamas used advanced remote sensing and digital mapping techniques to understand similarities and differences in atmospheric circulation between the last interglacial period and today. These types of studies are useful for making predictions about what to expect on our currently warming planet.
Once Ben compared his data set with millions of modern wind measurements taken over a 10-year time span, he knew he had something worth sharing. “We noticed a really striking trend in the orientations of coastal dunes preserved in the rock record across the Bahamas. To my knowledge this was the first time such a convincing dataset had been uncovered.” The official peer-review process was a chore. There are no “effort grades” in that world and reviewers are supposed to be critical. But Ben is appreciative of the scrutiny: “There was quite a bit of back and forth between myself, editors, co-authors, reviewers etc. but in the end it is a much better product.”
This time, the hard work and the drive for a deep understanding through interrogating the natural world led to great results. “This started out as a class project that just got out of control. Like I said up front, I am a pretty curious person. This was one time where the more I leaned into the inquiry the more fruitful were the results,” Ben says, adding, “I’m really pleased with the final article and it certainly feels great that it will get high visibility. I’ve spent countless hours on other research projects that just didn’t play out in the end, but this time the juice was definitely worth the squeeze.”
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