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SPRING 2010

Geology grad shares the spotlight with CSUEB

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A photo, left, that Mindy Kimball ’05 took as a CSUEB graduate student of one of Death Valley’s mysterious “sliding rocks” appeared in the 2009 book Thoreau’s Legacy: American Stories about Global Warming.

PHOTO MINDY KIMBALL; COURTESY UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS

BY ED FRAUENHEIM

Mindy Kimball ’05 is becoming a mini-celebrity as a climate change activist. And she’s making sure the University gets its share of her glory.

Kimball earned a master’s degree in geology at California State University, East Bay. Her studies at the University helped convince her that global warming presents a real peril. Since then, the 35-year-old has blended a career as an Army officer with speaking engagements as a representative of The Climate Project, an advocacy group founded by former vice president Al Gore. In addition, a photo Kimball took in the Death Valley desert while on a Cal State East Bay field trip has been included in a new print and online book Thoreau’s Legacy: American Stories about Global Warming.

Kimball took pains to ensure that Cal State East Bay was mentioned in the short write-up in the book that accompanies her photo of one of Death Valley’s strange “sliding rocks.” After all, she says, she wouldn’t be who she is without the University’s solid scientific foundation. 

“The entire program was enlightening and challenged me to learn so much,” Kimball says. “It was inspiring.”

Luther Strayer, associate professor of geology at Cal State East Bay, says Kimball rates as one of the most impressive students he’s seen since he arrived at the University 10 years ago. In 2005, Kimball received the Harrington Award, presented to students who produce theses of the highest quality. She should be an effective advocate on the dangers of global warming, Strayer says. 

“She’s charming, and she’s cute as a button,” Strayer says. “She also can speak with authority.”

As a major in the U.S. Army with expertise in satellite communications systems, Kimball in January completed a one-year tour of duty in Iraq. Kimball’s strong convictions about the looming threat of global warming and the need to prevent it stand out among her more conservative military colleagues. 

“Pretty much people label me as the tree hugger in the group,” she says. 

But she isn’t afraid to speak her mind to fellow soldiers. In fact, the Army invited Kimball to speak about climate matters during a Women’s History Month event in March 2009. The talk was one of about 20 that Kimball has delivered since 2007, when she became an official presenter for The Climate Project. Kimball connected with the advocacy group after seeing Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. She was prepared to challenge the accuracy of the film but found it stuck closely to the science she’d learned at Cal State East Bay.

At the close of the movie, viewers were invited to get involved. Kimball signed up. “I’ve always believed in that Gandhi quote – ‘be the change you wish to see in the world,’’’ she recalls. “I knew that the general public misunderstood the science behind climate change, and thought this may be my chance to do something.”

Kimball applied to be a presenter with Gore’s group, was accepted, and received three days of training in Nashville. Since then, she has spoken to community college students, Girl Scouts, and national park visitors. 

Her life as a public advocate is a direct consequence of training she received at Cal State East Bay, says Kimball, who attended the University with the help of an Army scholarship. She says Cal State East Bay faculty helped her get a grasp of the data and models used to draw conclusions about how the earth’s weather patterns have changed in eons past and continue changing. Professors encouraged her to read complicated journal articles. “They took the intimidation out,” Kimball says. 

In 2004, Kimball spent spring break on a field trip to Death Valley organized by Strayer and Professor Jeff Seitz, chair of the University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Among the highlights was an excursion to Racetrack Playa, a dried lakebed famous for the dozens of rocks that sit far out in the dessert with distinct trails behind them. 

One theory for these “sliding rocks” — which can be the size of toaster ovens — is that high winds push them through mud caused by rain. Another suggests that the rocks move in cold weather when trapped in thin sheets of ice blown by the wind.

But the rocks’ migration remain a mystery. “Nobody has ever observed them while they are actually moving,” Kimball says. 

Last year, a photo she shot at Racetrack Playa was accepted as part of the Thoreau’s Legacy anthology, published in July. The black-and-white image she made is striking, showing a solitary rock in the foreground with its long trail stretching out in the distance. The book, a joint project of the Union of Concerned Scientists advocacy group and Penguin Classics, also may be viewed online at www.ucsusa.org/americanstories. The sliding rock in Kimball’s photo isn’t directly related to global warming. But the parched terrain in the image serves as a warning of what much more of the American Southwest could look like if global warming continues unabated, she says. 

Indeed, when Kimball returned to Death Valley in 2007 to give one of her talks, the temperature reached a record high. “It was 101 degrees,” she recalls. “And it was only March.”

Next to Kimball’s photo a bio appears that mentions she’s a graduate of both West Point and Cal State East Bay. The anthology editors at first cut down the bio for space. But Kimball asked them to re-edit it to include the University. 

Kimball hopes her presence in the book inspires action on global warming. And she hopes it raises the profile of Cal State East Bay, the school that served as a bedrock for her career as an environmental activist. “I hope it makes people take a look at the program,” she says.

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