IN LOVING MEMORY
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Sarah was a talented, award-winning author, pilot, artist, teacher, and professional geologist who brought the excitement of geology to the public through her mystery stories. She adeptly engaged geoscientist friends in her research, often rewarding them with veiled appearances in her books, sometimes with unfortunate outcomes. In her dozen books, geologists, paleontologists, biologists, accountants, and graduate students, among others, were murdered. Her chief alter ego, petroleum geologist turned forensic geologist, Em Hansen, demonstrated that geological principles can be used not only to solve murders and scientific problems but also to address social concerns. She painted positive pictures of petroleum, mining, environmental, engineering, and research geologists in industry, the USGS, state geological surveys, and academia.
Sarah’s career gave her the background and contacts for research on her many books. In 1969, Sarah moved from the East Coast to obtain her undergraduate education at Colorado College. Four years later she obtained a BA in Geology. Her first geological job was with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Denver. Fascination with the Grand Canyon and dedication to her USGS mentor, Eddie McKee, Chief Naturalist at Grand Canyon National Park from 1929 to 1940, allowed Em Hansen to deftly tackle creationism while rafting down the canyon (in the book Rock Bottom).
Eddie McKee helped open many professional doors for Sarah. Her USGS research was published in a seminal 1981 paper on Great Sand Dunes (now a National Park and preserve), the same year that she completed her M.S. in Earth resources at Colorado State University (CSU), advised by Frank Ethridge. She subsequently became a petroleum geologist for Amoco Corporation and Angus Petroleum, which provided plots for Tensleep, A Fall in Denver, and Only Flesh and Bones. Sarah gracefully navigated the cultural complexity and challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field.
Professional contacts also gave Sarah a long-lasting friendship with Lee Allison (later State Geologist of Utah, Kansas, and Arizona), who in 2016 also tragically passed away, and through whom other friendships developed with State Geologists and employees of the state geological surveys of Utah (Bone Hunter—with intrigue about collecting vertebrate fossils for sale; Fault Line—with questions about revealing information on hazards to the public), Nevada (An Eye for Gold—touching on fraud and endangered species), Pennsylvania (Earth Colors—using elements in pigments as poisons), Florida (Killer Dust—effects of African dust), and Colorado (Dead Dry—drought and water resources). A downturn in the petroleum industry gave Sarah the opportunity to leave the oil patch for the environmental consulting business in California (background for her book Mother Nature) and lecturing at Sonoma State University.
Sarah’s gregarious personality also engaged academics and law-enforcement professionals who jumped at the chance of helping her gather information for her books. Reading the acknowledgments in her books is a good way of discovering a network of helpful friends and colleagues. Sarah also acquired background for her books from her youth on the East Coast. She inherited some of her artistic talents from her grandmother and father, who were recognized oil painters. Sarah often entertained CSU faculty and students with her artistic ability, which included quirky cartoons on geology and the oil patch. Sarah’s mother, an English and religion teacher, gave her confidence to tackle writing and topics for which geology and religion occasionally collide.
The National Science Foundation awarded Sarah an Artists and Writers Grant to conduct research at McMurdo Station and field stations in Antarctica for her book In Cold Pursuit, in which the protagonist is a female graduate student who proves that her professor isn’t guilty of murdering a journalist.
Sarah was frequently invited to lecture on a wide range of topics, including geology, mystery writing, communicating science to the public, women in geology, how geologists think, the controversy between science and religion, and the life of Eddie McKee. A Fellow of the Geological Society of America,
Sarah received several significant awards: the 2016 President’s Medal of the Geological Society of America, the 2009 Louis T. Benezet Award from Colorado College, the 2006 Antarctic Service Medal, the 2003 Special Award of the Association of Engineering Geologists, the 2001 James T. Shea Award of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the 1999 Journalism Award of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, and the 1997 Journalism Award of the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists.
A love story
Damon Brown also went to CSU to pursue his MS in geology with Frank Ethridge. While Damon was a student in residence at CSU, Sarah was working in the oil patch. She called her former advisor to say that she was running a geology field trip for petroleum geologists and could use a strong graduate student with a truck to help with logistics for the trip. Frank immediately thought Damon might be interested in this task since it would be a good opportunity for him to meet fellow geologists in the petroleum industry, learn some new geology from Sarah, gain more field experience, and most importantly – he had a truck. Damon agreed to the task and the rest is history. After the trip they dated, and eventually Sarah moved to California with Damon and they were married. Their son Duncan brought them much joy.
Friendship and Fellowship
The Brown family had wide circles of friends and involved many of their friends in adventures from road trips to rafting trips down the Colorado River, filled with fun and laughter. Sarah and Damon both were good storytellers and enjoyed talking. Any picnic lunch Sarah fixed would be a repast of amazing proportions. Sarah would thoughtfully bake blackberry pies for her friends, and knit socks and hats for friends’ children or grandchildren. Sarah, Damon, and Duncan will all be greatly missed, and long remembered for their passionate embrace of life, their devotion to friends, and contributions to their professions.
Read more about Sarah, her life story, and her work on her website.