Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Kenneth Ridgway: Earth Watcher, Earth Teacher

Growing up in Alloway, New Jersey, along the shores of the Delaware Bay, Purdue University earth sciences professor Ken Ridgway spent a lot of time outdoors observing the natural world. “I grew up watching nature very closely, watching vegetables grow, and watching all of these amazing things that the earth does,” Ridgway says.

It wasn’t until he went to college, however, that he learned that scientists actually study such things. The realization set him on the path he treads today: working to solve some of the fundamental riddles of earth processes and making minority students feel welcome in the fraternity of science.

The Power of Education

Ridgway’s journey has mirrored the movements of his ancestors, the Lenape Tribe, who lived along the Delaware River in what is now New Jersey and Delaware. With the arrival of the Europeans, many Lenape chose to move west, settling for a while in central Indiana before dispersing further. Although Ridgway grew up near the Delaware River and now makes his home in Indiana, he’s not trying to escape white culture back east. Rather, he’s an inspirational example of the power of education to change a life.

Base camp is in the St. Elias Mountains in Alaska. Tents are in the lower right of photo.

Ridgway's parents' generation was the first to attend high school, but most of his older relatives didn’t go to school; they worked on farms. His parents, however, believed in the importance of going to college and seeing the world. “When you’re poor, ‘the world’ is only about a 3-hour drive from New Jersey,” he jokes. And indeed, he didn't have to go much farther than that to discover the world; camping trips to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains introduced him to new landscapes and sparked a passion for understanding how they formed.

This interest in the natural world led him to study wildlife biology at West Virginia University in Morgantown and eventually to take his first geology class. “I was just blown away that there were people who were studying subduction zones and mountain belts and all of these things that I had been interested in but I didn’t know that I was interested in,” he says. He switched his major to geology.

For his master's degree, Ridgway moved to Indiana University and studied sedimentary geology, the science of rock recycling. As mountain ranges age and erode, pieces of rock are washed downhill and deposited in layers in sedimentary basins, large depressions on the surface of the earth. Within these basins,former mountain parts solidify to form sedimentary rocks. Sedimentary basins are home to freshwater aquifers and many energy sources, such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal.

Ridgway dries out after several weeks of rain in the Wrangell Mountains, also in Alaska.

As a graduate student at Indiana, Ridgway noticed that the most compelling professors he met had all worked in industry. Following in their footsteps, he decided to become a professor and, like his mentors, to get some industrial experience. At that time--the mid- to late 1980s--oil-industry jobs were plentiful. So once he finished his degree, Ridgway went to work for Chevron in Texas, exploring sedimentary basins for new deposits of oil and gas. “I did a good job and I had fun, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. There wasn’t enough to drive me toward excellence,” he says. So after 3 years, he decided to go back to school and get a Ph.D.

The decision came as a shock to his family. They were very supportive of his studies, but the choice to forgo the security of a high-paying job for the meager wages of a graduate student seemed crazy. “It’s a big change, but I think what education does for you is it gives you confidence,” he says. “It gives you the strength to say, ‘This is my dream; I’m pretty good at this, and this is where it can take me.’ ” He convinced his family that it was a good move.

Ridgway completed his doctorate at the University of Rochester in New York in 1992 and went straight to a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Helping Others Reinvent Themselves

Moving out of his close-knit community to go to college was liberating for Ridgway. “My world wasn’t very big, and when I went to college, I felt my world open up, just like seeing the universe for the first time,” he says. “I was basically reinventing who I was and how I interacted with people of all races. And I think that’s the most beautiful thing about education.”

Ridgway wanted to offer that same opportunity--a chance at self-discovery--to minority students at Purdue. So one of the first things he did was to help set up an American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) to bring together Native students. He has also worked hard to get minority students--including undergraduates--into his lab or out doing field research in the Yukon and Alaska.

The work his undergraduate students do isn’t always cutting edge; it’s mostly carrying rock samples in backpacks and sorting them in the lab by the size of mineral grains. “But at least I want them to feel like they’re welcome and that we want them to do well. And they’re working with my graduate students, so they can learn more about, ‘Well, what does it mean to have a master's? What does it mean to have a Ph.D.?’ ” It’s a way for students to learn firsthand from mentors in their chosen field and gain important experience to make educated choices in their careers.

Ridgway studies conglomerate in southern Arizona.

Steps for Success

The first step to realizing this vision, says Ridgway, is for students to take a basic geology class and find out what geologists actually do. Get involved in research groups, apply for summer internships, or volunteer to work in a professor’s lab.

Then, he says, you must educate your parents. “It’s not just about getting support from your parents. You have to teach your parents how the educational system works, because they haven’t been exposed to it. The idea of getting a good job is often the most important thing for a parent. You have to explain that education is like a big salad bar; it opens up your view and presents all kinds of possibilities.”

Ridgway says that our science-and-technology-driven society offers opportunities for people who are competent in those fields and encourages minority students to consider careers in these areas. “I think that education is really the key for Native people, for African Americans, for Hispanics; that’s the ticket into having options in your life. I was allowed to get a good education and given the opportunity to find out what I’m good at. I would like every kid in the U.S. to have that same opportunity.”

Empowering Native Communities

In addition to his regular research, Ridgway conducts field studies on the Kaibab Reservation in northern Arizona, where he helps study restoration programs on overgrazed land and builds awareness about careers in the sciences among local Native students. “As a Native American, I want this next generation of Native scientists to realize that there’s a lot that they can do for their communities,” Ridgway says. “We need Native scientists--geologists, geophysicists, and hydrologists--to tell the people about the possible impacts and negotiate with big companies that might not always have the best interest of the tribe in mind.”

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers