Christopher Andronicos: Understanding Mountains and Minorities

Like many people who eventually unearth a passion for geology, Chris Andronicos's career began in a much different discipline: physics. It wasn't until his junior year at the University of New Mexico that he took a geology course, but he was hooked right away. "This is what I want to do," he thought. So, he changed majors and immersed himself in rocks and magma, mountains, and colliding continents.

The search for answers to some of geology's more puzzling enigmas has taken this Albuquerque, New Mexico, native as far afield as the rugged Coast Mountains of British Columbia and the ivy-covered campus of New Jersey's Princeton University. He has made it to those places in large part, he believes, thanks to the help he has received from many sources--from his mom to his undergraduate mentors and graduate advisor. As a result of their influence, he is driven to help other minority science students succeed in the earth sciences.

Growing Up Urban Indian

"I'm sort of Heinz 57," jokes Andronicos, who is Sioux and Micmac on his mother's side, and Pueblo on his dad's. "I had a pretty typical urban Indian upbringing," he says, "We did a lot of pow-wowing." Maria Flying Horse, Andronicos's mother, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, but transferred to Albuquerque before Chris was born, seeking a respite from the craziness of the nation's capital.

Andronicos is the first in his family to finish high school and his mom insisted that he attend college. "She basically left me absolutely no choice." He stayed close to home, attending the University of New Mexico (UNM), which proved to be a very suitable choice.

Andronicos in the Coast Mountains, British Columbia.

"I had a tremendous amount of support. I'm quite certain that if I had gone to a school in the Midwest or somewhere, it wouldn't have worked out nearly as well and I'd be working a dead-end job in an auto parts store or something," he says. Andronicos believed leaving his hometown and the large Native American population in Albuquerque would lead to feelings of isolation elsewhere. Instead, he thrived at UNM by meeting others like himself. "I was involved in the Minority Engineering, Math, and Science (MEMS) group. And I got lots of help with tutoring in math and physics and things like that--a lot of the things that I think wipe people out pretty bad when they're first starting out. And so for me, I can't think of a better place to have been an undergraduate."

But Andronicos struggled with his major. "I got through, but I started realizing, 'Gee, maybe physics isn't the thing for me.'" Then he took a geology class and decided that was what he wanted to do with his life. He was fortunate to land a job working for Jeff Grambling and Karl Karlstrom, two professors at UNM. The job not only allowed him to quit his 60-hour-per-week job managing a local restaurant; it also provided exposure to field mapping and research opportunities.

"I owe my career to them in many ways," says Andronicos. For, without their help, encouragement, and the opportunities they provided, he would never have been able to go graduate school.

But he did go to graduate school, and not just any graduate school. Andronicos set his sights on one of the most prestigious schools in the country--Princeton University--and on Linc Hollister, one of the world's leading experts in mountain formation. He got in. And, serving as his doctoral advisor, Hollister expanded Andronicos's horizons far beyond the New Mexico sky; he remains an important ally and colleague.

Ivy-League Adjustments

Graduate studies at Princeton required big adjustments on many levels. "It was absolutely terrifying because I really didn't think that I was good enough to go to a place like Princeton," he says. "It was a very different place culturally, but I was quite relieved to find out that academically it wasn't all that much different from UNM. I had been challenged pretty well as an undergrad, and I was relieved to see that I could get through there."

Left: Wu Kaiwen, Andronicos, and Mike Mansfield on Hunchback Mountain, Colorado.

At Princeton, Andronicos specialized in structural geology, the study of the fabric and structure of the Earth, including how mountains form and how faults--big cracks in the skin of the planet--reshuffle the rocks seen on the surface. His doctoral work took him to remote regions of British Columbia, where he would helicopter into rugged areas to conduct fieldwork, making maps of the rocks on the surface and collecting rock samples to analyze in laboratories back at the university. "It was a very exciting project in what, at least to me, were very exotic places, and I was doing things that I never thought I would be doing," he says. It set the course for his geological career.

Giving Back

Andronicos earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1999 and was invited to join the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) as an assistant professor. Shortly after his arrival, he helped develop the Pathways Research Experience Program (PREP) which is funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Opportunities to Enhance Diversity in the Geosciences program, which was designed to match students from underrepresented groups and faculty mentors to pursue undergraduate research projects. A similar style of mentoring and encouragement worked for Andronicos at UNM so he knew it could work for others.

"When we were designing the project, we really thought about ourselves and the kinds of experiences that got us hooked on doing what we do today. So, we try to provide similar experiences to the kids that come into the program," he says. Students receive a stipend which allows them to focus on their studies without working outside the university. The program also incorporates workshops on basic skills like applying to graduate schools, obtaining financial aid, and surviving college life.

"The thing about being a professor at UTEP is that you can impact peoples' lives in a way that I don't think you can at a lot of other universities, because UTEP is a major Hispanic-serving institution," Andronicos says. "Most of the students are the first people in their families to go to college. They come from poor backgrounds and sometimes you know you can really make a big, big difference in their lives. So you push them and they go to graduate school. And you know with the things that you do for them, you change their lives forever."

When asked what advice he would give students starting their undergraduate degrees, Andronicos quotes Jeff Grambling from early in their relationship: "You know, anybody can do a Ph.D., it's just a question of how hard you work for it."

"You get students and they get a C in a class and you know, boom, they change their major," Andronicos explains. "And so I would say really sticking to things is important. Even if you get really discouraged, if you can work through it, you can get through it. So don't give up."

Andronicos feels a "tremendous amount of responsibility" to help other minority students persevere and succeed in their studies. ". . . If certain people hadn't done certain things for me in my life, . . . I would probably be in jail or in some terrible job going absolutely nowhere," he explains. ". . . I'm in a position to help other people get opportunities now, and I think that that's a very important thing to do."

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at

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