Ringing in Rick’s Retirement with Science, Stories, and Celebration

Graham Pearson Presents on all the Reasons Rick is Great
Graham Pearson starts his presentation with a list of characteristics that make Richard Carlson a good friend and mentor.
Tuesday, May 24, 2022 

What do motorbikes, neodymium, and seismology have in common?

From May 18-20, a group of colleagues and friends from across the decades gathered to ring in the retirement of former Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL) Director Richard (Rick) Carlson with a scientific symposium.

The symposium, internally referred to as “RickFest”, was designed to highlight the full breadth of Carlson’s exceptional career—from using isotopes to determine the age of the Moon, to exploring Earth's oldest crust and mantle, to looking at Earth's youngest basalts, and even to field geophysics!

As one attendee put it, “This is so much fun! It's like being at the greatest AGU session of all time."

Rick, who served Carnegie with distinction for 42 years and whose work has transformed our understanding of the Earth and our Solar System, stepped down as Director and retired as an emeritus staff member on December 31, 2021.

Steve Shirey stated in an earlier speech, “Rick started out as a fun-loving California surfer and teenage motocross bike racer from the San Diego area who, as he said to me several times, was happier on the beach than in high-school classes,” said Shirey. “But probably because his father was a rocket engineer, he found his way to UC San Diego.”

Rick’s shift in focus from motocross to geochemistry was a lucky turn of events for our understanding of our planet and the Solar System at large.

Rick joined Carnegie as a postdoctoral fellow in 1980 and was named a Staff Scientist the following year. He is widely recognized for his use of isotope geochemistry to understand the origin and evolution of the early Solar System, the Moon, and the Earth’s continental crust and lithosphere. He also collaborates on geophysical projects, a rare feature for geochemists. He even has a seismic station solar panel holder—the Carlson Frame—named after him!

Speakers at the celebratory symposium included many of Carnegie’s illustrious alumni like Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the former director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism who is currently the principal investigator of NASA’s Psyche Mission.

“I'm very grateful to have been friends and colleagues with Rick for all these years and also at Carnegie itself,” said Elkins-Tanton. “I feel very connected to the whole family, and it’s worth mentioning that Sonia [Rick’s wife, Sonia Esperança, a longtime fixture at the National Science Foundation] gave me my very first grant. So, the connection goes way back!” 

As symposium speakers took turns reminiscing about their time working with Rick, it became clear that his legacy goes beyond research and scientific discoveries to the mentorship he provided to generations of young scientists and the leadership he brought to EPL. His leadership, scientific vision, and respect for all who worked with him provided the scaffolding for EPL’s many successes during his time as division director. 

Natasha Metzler, Carnegie Science’s associate director of digital media and content strategy, writes, “I've known Rick for twelve years, which is nothing compared to many of the attendees at RickFest this week. But it's more than long enough to know that he's a person of the utmost integrity who approaches every situation with genuine thoughtfulness and care.”

She continued, “Even when Rick disagrees with you, he makes your work better. And when he agrees, he makes your work sing.”

There is no doubt that Rick has left his mark on our world, both literally and figuratively, through his consistently boundary-pushing research, encouragement of cross-discipline collaboration, and the thoughtful support and encouragement he provided to all who worked with him as they came through campus—whether as postdocs, scientific staff, or support staff.

Mike Walter, current director of EPL, says, “Rick set the initial course for our EPL adventure and we owe him a lot for choosing the right direction. Beyond his leadership, Rick is simply a great and inspirational scientist. I have known few scientists who possess the tremendous breadth and depth of knowledge Rick possesses.”

He concludes with an invitation, “It is my great hope that Rick will continue to attend our reading groups and seminars—even if he ends up on a beach somewhere exotic or riding motorcycles in southern California—so that we can keep drawing from that deep well.”

Event Photo Album

We have compiled a photo album from the three-day celebration. The public photo album will be archived at the end of July so please browse and download any photos you may want to keep. Click here to view the album and download your favorite photos.

Have a memory or photo of Carlson’s career that you want to share? Or a note you’d like to pass along? Click here to add to the KudoBoard. 

Watch the full Symposium: 

Full presentation schedule >>