Image: Science Instructor Sarah FowellSarah FowellI was born and raised in Richland Center, Wisconsin, a small town surrounded by bluffs of sandstone deposited in shallow seas that covered the Midwest during the Cambrian Period, some 500 million years ago. Her birthplace is located right in the middle of the "driftless" area, the small portion of Wisconsin that was not bulldozed by an ice sheet during the last ice age, and for this reason it has more hills and fewer lakes than other parts of Wisconsin. She attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where her interest in geology was sparked by the concept of deep time and the study of ancient, exotic, extinct animals. She graduated with a BS in geology and was accepted into the PhD program at Columbia University in New York City. Her graduate studies were conducted at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a research institute perched above the Hudson River on the Palisades Sill. This thick ledge of igneous rock was injected into the surrounding sedimentary rocks during the Triassic Period, when the supercontinent Pangea began to break up, North America separated from Africa and the Atlantic Ocean was formed.

In 1997 Fowell arrived at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she teaches courses in Historical Geology, Invertebrate Paleontology, Palynology (the study of pollen and spores) and Global Change. She also has had the pleasure of teaching Physical Geology to students attending the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI), a summer bridging program for college-bound students from rural Alaskan communities.

Fowell's “4-dimensional” research involves using plant fossils, primarily pollen and spores, to reconstruct Earth's ancient vegetation. Because different plants have different temperature and moisture requirements, an understanding of past vegetation can lead to an understanding of past climate conditions and climatic change. For her PhD thesis, Fowell concentrated on changes in vegetation cover at the end of the Triassic Period, a time of mass extinction among marine invertebrates and terrestrial reptiles. More recent projects include collecting sediment cores from Mongolian lakes in order to assess the impact of climate change on arid grasslands over the last 8,000 years and collaborating with vertebrate paleontologists, sedimentologists, and paleobotanists to reconstruct the habitats in which Alaska dinosaurs lived and dined during the Late Cretaceous, roughly 70 million years ago.

Like many geologists, Fowell loves to travel and spend time outdoors. Her hobbies include rock climbing, mountain biking, skate skiing, and scuba diving. When at home she enjoys quilting and playing with her dog, Satchel.

Fowell is serving as a STEP Science Instructor in 2008, when the featured topic is Earth Science.