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In memoriam: Robert Douglas, 78

Professor emeritus of Earth sciences was instrumental in building the department and its scholarship as a revered educator and administrator

The late Robert Douglas
Robert Douglas at his USC office in 1982 (Photo/Courtesy of USC University Archives)

Robert Guy Douglas, professor emeritus of Earth sciences, has died. He was 78.

Douglas died at home in Rancho Palos Verdes on Jan. 26 after a long battle with cancer.

Dean of natural sciences and mathematics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences from 1986 to 1994, Douglas also served as chair of the Department of Earth Sciences from 1981-85. From 1985-86, he was director of the marine studies program and the Institute for Marine and Coastal Studies at USC (now the Hancock Institute for Marine Studies).

Douglas’ research focused on marine paleoenvironments, paleoclimates and ocean history. He was also an expert in biostratigraphy and micropaleontology. Along with his close colleague, the late Professor Emeritus of Earth Sciences Donn Gorsline, Douglas served as a pillar of USC’s marine science and marine geology/paleoceanography group.

“Bob was ahead of his time as a ‘quantitative’ paleoceanographer and is recognized as someone who helped the field expand and thrive,” said chair and professor of earth sciences and environmental studies William Berelson.

Rocks and fossils

Inspired by the unique Palos Verdes landforms and local rocks and fossils he found as a child in Torrance, Douglas studied geology in college, receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1959. In the early ’60s, he worked as a geologist in Shell Oil’s Alaska Division before earning his PhD at UCLA in 1966, specializing in marine micropaleontology.

Douglas taught at both the University of California, Davis and Case Western Reserve University in Ohio before joining the faculty at USC in 1974. There he embarked on a decades-long effort with Gorsline to understand the marine geology and history of the evolution of the Southern California Borderland, the area extending into the ocean from the Southern California coast to the end of the continental shelf.

As dean of natural sciences and mathematics, Douglas spearheaded the efforts to renovate the Zumberge Hall of Science, which would eventually become the home for the earth sciences department. He also was instrumental in recruiting several distinguished faculty members. His leadership saw the formation of the Southern California Earthquake Center and the founding of the Southern California Marine Institute, a multicampus research facility and nonprofit oceanographic institution.

Toward the end of his research career, Berelson said, Douglas made huge strides in bringing his understanding of marine geology and paleoecology to a cadre of young Mexican scientists focused on the sediment history of the Gulf of California.

“Bob made numerous trips to La Paz and Ensenada to offer short courses and workshops as well as participate on research ships to engage these scientists in these topics.”

Natural leader

David Bottjer, professor of earth sciences, biological sciences and environmental studies, characterized Douglas as a natural leader.

“When I arrived at USC in the fall of 1979, Bob was at the top of his field of paleontology and paleoceanography, providing scientific leadership on an international scale. His time as chair was an epic one for the department — we hired both renowned seismologist Kei Aki and outstanding stratigrapher Al Fischer as senior faculty.

Bob provided an outstanding example to me of how excellence can be accomplished at a university.

David Bottjer

“Bob provided an outstanding example to me of how excellence can be accomplished at a university.”

Where they knew his name

Professor of Earth Sciences Doug Hammond recalled his encounter with Douglas during a job interview at USC in 1975.

“Douglas took me to meet several other faculty at a dinner at Anna Maria’s on La Brea, a favorite spot for the earth sciences faculty where the owner, Danny, would greet Bob and several others by name. These experiences set a tone for life in earth sciences at USC Dornsife. Cutting-edge research was being done, but time was taken to enjoy good company and laugh about life’s surprises.

“Bob always looked after me, sometimes by making introductions to colleagues who would become helpful and sometimes in ways that I did not know about, probably one of the reasons I have stayed here and enjoyed it for 40 years. Whether he was passing on pearls of wisdom or shielding me from administrative stresses while he was chair and later dean, he always maintained a positive tone.”

Global impact

Douglas made an impact not only on his colleagues, but also on the lives of many of his students and collaborators around the world.

One was Oscar Efraín González Yajimovich ’04, now a professor in the marine sciences department at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California. He earned his doctorate in marine geology from USC Dornsife with Douglas as his co-adviser and thesis director.

“Bob was the best adviser one could ask for, constantly challenging me with ideas and offerings of ‘food for thought, Oscar.’ I know this to be true not only for me but for colleagues who were also former students of his. One recurring theme is that he always treated us both as colleagues and friends. He was always attentive to his students’ academic and sometimes personal needs, and in my case always asked about my wife and kids. Bob was not only my adviser, but also my mentor, colleague and, most important, my friend.”

Douglas was a PhD adviser for paleoceanographer Francisca Staines-Urias from 2001-06, one of the last students he mentored before his retirement. She is currently a guest researcher at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, working on one of the international Geocenter projects.

“Soon after I started my PhD, during my first American Geophysical Union meeting, I realized that everybody knew Bob, and he knew everybody. As his name was in the poster I presented, one after another, people approached me to ask about him — from former students and postdocs he trained to people he had worked with during his many trips to Mexico — and send him their regards.”

Staines-Urias recalled Douglas’ immense appetite for knowledge and love of sharing it with others.

“Bob’s enthusiasm was contagious, keeping the students of the Sed [Sedimentology] Lab working hard and trying new things. Most important, he was really patient when our ‘experiments’ were unsuccessful.”

Committed to the community

Douglas published an extensive series of important and well-cited articles, and he sat on a number of editorial boards and international scientific committees. He was also committed to the local community, serving on the board of directors for the Los Angeles-St. Petersburg Sister City Program and as a board member and chair for the Abalone Cove Landslide Abatement District. In the early 2000s, Douglas became very active as a science adviser to the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, working toward tracking and understanding the landslides in the area.

I know that many of the ‘old timers’ feel this loss deeply — as do I.

William Berelson

Douglas retired from teaching in 2009 and was granted emeritus status by USC the same year. In his spare time, he spent many days fishing for tuna off the California and Baja coasts, storing his gear in custom hardwood tackle boxes that he had built. He even authored the book Tuna Smart: Understanding the Tunas of the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

“I know that many of the ‘old timers’ feel this loss deeply — as do I — and remember Bob’s wisdom, counsel and hearty chuckle,” Berelson said.

Douglas is survived by his wife, Fay Woodruff Douglas, who earned a master’s in geology from USC Dornsife and was a research scientist in the earth sciences department for many years; daughters Ellen (Dean) Kosson ’94, who graduated from USC Dornsife with a bachelor’s in international relations, and Katia Douglas; granddaughter Alexandra Kosson; and brothers Elden and Stephen.

A memorial service was held on Feb. 2.

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In memoriam: Robert Douglas, 78

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