PULLMAN, Wash.—In 2004, E. Kirsten Peters, a geologist-turned-newspaper-reporter in Pullman, started writing a monthly column on local rocks and fossils, pulling from her extensive field experience in the area. Today that column has grown in scope and become the nationally syndicated “Rock Doc” columns, distributed twice per month to more than 100 newspapers across the country and read by hundreds of thousands of readers. Washington State University Press has just published a collection of Peters’ favorite columns as Planet Rock Doc: Nuggets from Explorations of the Natural World.
A presentation and book sale and signing are scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at Neill Public Library in Pullman.
Peters originally wrote about geology, but the topics of her folksy and highly informative columns have evolved to encompass energy, food and agriculture, engineering, climate and more. Peters follows the course of her own curiosity and a desire to share what she learns about the natural world with the general public—what she calls her self-assigned job of science outreach.
“My unshakable belief is that there’s really nothing terribly difficult in understanding much of science, at least not if a person has a willing guide to it,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. “I try to be such an escort for the public because I believe that citizens are better off when both the natural world and scientists themselves are as demystified as they can be.
“In an era when our national economy and our personal lives are shaped by science and technology, everyone deserves the best chance possible at understanding how empirical work proceeds, how it is funded and what it’s likely to discover next.”
Her commitment to translating technical research for people everywhere spurred Peters to seek a larger readership for the column in 2009, aided in large measure by her assistant, Susan Bentjen. Bentjen wrote to newspaper editors in the Pacific Northwest and eventually throughout the United States, enclosing copies of the column and inquiring about their interest in running it. A website soon followed (http://rockdoc.wsu.edu) and, more recently, recorded audio versions for Northwest Public Radio.
“We knew we had reached a plateau in our need to publicize the ‘Rock Doc’ column to newspapers when editors started to come on their own to our website and use content posted there—as all papers are always welcome to do at any time as long as they credit Washington State University and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences,” Peters said.
Peters’ favorite columns are “all the ones about my dog and the pickup truck,” she said. Her faithful canine companion, Buster Brown, “dog of renown,” has appeared in columns having to do with biology. Her 1987 truck and its close call with overheating on a highway grade proved useful in explaining why scientists have studied engines and their importance to the science of energy.
WSU scientists and researchers also frequently help Peters make the hard-to-understand comprehensible in many of her columns. One of those, “Defeating Death,” discussed how wheat geneticist Steve Jones and plant pathologist Tim Murray have worked to change the gene that prompts wheat to die every summer, a first step to creating perennial wheat as a commercial crop. Such a breakthrough could save wheat farmers a lot of work in preparing the soil each year and replanting—as well as saving fuel.
“If we could prevent wheat from dying each summer, it would grow indefinitely, like the grass in your backyard,” Peters wrote. “Then we could harvest wheat without replanting. And this perennial wheat—with large and established root systems like grass—would be in our fields all year round, helping to hold our soils together through strong winds and hard rains. It’s a clear ‘win-win,’ as the young people say.”
A native of rural Washington state, Peters earned her doctorate in geology from Harvard University and her undergraduate degree from Princeton. She taught undergraduate-level courses at WSU for a decade and is the author or coauthor of journal articles and two textbooks. When she’s not being the “Rock Doc,” Peters is developing and writing major grants for WSU’s Agricultural Research Center in CAHNRS.
Planet Rock Doc is available at bookstores or from WSU Press, www.wsupress.wsu.edu, or call 1-800-354-7360.