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Earth Scientist Christa Sadler Gives Keynote For Festival Of Science Tonight

Arizona Daily Sun

The annual Flagstaff Festival of Science this year, because of the pandemic, will be a mix of virtual events with some in-person star parties and nature hikes. The festival begins today with a live keynote by Christa Sadler, an earth scientist whose work takes her exploring through the Grand Canyon and across the Colorado Plateau. Sadler spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny about the inspiration she draws from the landscape and the close connection she sees between science and art.    

Tell me just a little bit about your own journey to becoming a geologist and paleontologist.

I have just always loved this. My first trip to the Grand Canyon I was 12 and I rode the mules down for Thanksgiving, and I still remember I picked up a little piece of granite and schist together, and the ranger told me it was almost two billion years old! I was 12, what did I know?... Anyway, so I just have always really loved this. When I had a chance to take a river trip in the Grand Canyon… it just solidified everything I love about the Earth. All right, I want to study everything that I can about the Earth.

What inspires you about the Colorado Plateau?

To me it’s the most extraordinary place in the world… Somebody once described it as: “there was a tuning fork in my chest that just started humming when I first came here,” and that’s really how I feel. Obviously for a geologist and a paleontologist, it is one of the best places in the world to study certain time periods, certain periods in Earth history… These vast, huge open spaces and these skies and the colors of the rocks—I remember Terry Tempest Williams wrote once, “they look like if you cut them they would bleed.” It just feels like you’re in the body of Mother Earth. It’s a great place for me emotionally, but also intellectually it’s one of the best places I can imagine.

You’re describing the landscape in such poetic terms. Tell me about that, do you feel like the science and the poetry, they belong together?

I teach classes at Grand Canyon for Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute, and every once in a while somebody will say something like: “doesn’t it ruin the mystery if you can answer all these questions?” The way I feel is a) I can’t answer all the questions, I don’t have all the answers—that’s one of the great things about science, that’s how it works. But for me, that I tell people is, I can look at this landscape, and just be so moved and so touched by it, and feel such a connection in my heart, and I don’t need the science but then if I want to look at it through a scientific lens, it is like putting on a different pair of glasses. It doesn’t erase the rest of it, it just adds a different level of clarity. I just wish we could have kids understand the value of both science and art together.

What would you like young people to know about pursuing a career in the sciences?

One, it’s super cool…. There’s so many different ways to be involved with a career that is, if not immediately the white lab coat and test tubs and all that, that is connected to science…. You can be a science illustrator, a science education, a museum curator. A bunch of different kinds of things. You don’t have to get a PHD, put on the lab coat with the pocket projector… So I would just say, there are lots of different ways to get involved with science. If you are interested in science, go study it, but if you happen to love biology but you’re also a really good writer, you could do that with it, or you love biology and you’re incredible artist. There’s lots of different ways to use science in your life.   

Christa Sadler, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

You can find the program for the Festival of Science at

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.