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Pictured above: Deb Pitman standing in Reykjanes Ridge.

Grateful for a world of opportunities, donors create scholarship for geophysics graduate students

Debra and Ross Pitman Graduate Scholarship in Geological Sciences

February 17, 2016 — 

Having just returned to Canada after two weeks in Iceland, Deb Pitman [B.Sc (Hons.)/78] ardently scrolls through some breathtaking pictures from her most recent “volcano chasing” adventure. She is particularly pleased with a series of photos of her standing triumphantly in Reykjanes Ridge, arms spanning the craggy little valley as if she were pushing the Earth apart herself. Actually caused by two diverging tectonic plates, Reykjanes Ridge is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and sure to be on any respectable geology enthusiast’s bucket list.

It’s no surprise then that Deb and her husband Ross chose to vacation on the “Land of Fire and Ice”. Their shared love for geology has taken them around the world, and to some of the newest land formations on Earth. It has provided them both with rewarding careers. And it has inspired them to support the next generation of geology students at Deb’s alma mater.

Deb’s love for geology goes way back. She recalls how, as a child, she would puzzle over where the sand at her family cottage came from. It was a unique passion that her parents supported and nourished as she grew up. “I remember my dad breaking open rocks with a sledge hammer so I could see what was inside,” she says. And as she progressed through school, newly developing theories of plate tectonics only added to her interest. She delighted in how easily the world’s continents could be pieced back together “like a giant puzzle” revealing millions of years of geological history.

Once in university, Deb enrolled in every first-year course that would get her into Geophysics. She speculates that she may have been the first student to have actually started and finished their degree in the department. “Most people who end up in Geophysics didn’t start there,” she laughs. But her focus and determination paid-off.

After graduation, Deb went on to a very successful career in petroleum exploration, and started her own consulting company in Calgary. However, being one of very few women in the industry had its challenges, especially when she decided to become a parent. Up until the 1980s, Alberta’s legislation had essentially forced women to quit their jobs if they wanted to stay with their newborns for longer than six weeks after birth. But in 1985, Deb and a small group of trailblazers helped change that law so that women could take 18 weeks of maternity leave without fear of losing their position or seniority. Over time others across Canada pushed for further changes. Currently, Alberta parents can take 37 weeks of paid parental leave in addition to 15 weeks of maternity leave. Deb credits this feat, and many of her life achievements to the knowledge, experience, encouragement, and fellowship she gained during her studies at the University of Manitoba.

Recognizing just how valuable both of their undergraduate degrees have been, Deb and Ross have decided to establish an endowed scholarship at the University of Manitoba. This award will be available to graduate students studying in the Department of Geological Sciences with a focus on geophysics. When asked why she chose to support graduate students, Deb sums it up by saying “research is our future.”

This article originally appeared in the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources Winter 2016 Newsletter.

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