July 11, 2017

Getting to Know: Geology professor keeps head in the clouds

Geology Professor Sarah Brownlee skydiving

As an assistant professor of geology in Wayne State's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Sarah Brownlee’s research interest is in structural geology, or the deformation of rocks over time. In particular, she’s interested in parts of the Earth’s crust that are so far down — deeper than 9 miles (~15 km) — that the deepest drill hole known to man (~13 km) can’t reach them.

“We use seismology to try and determine what materials and structures are in the interior of the Earth,” said Brownlee. “If we don’t understand the materials themselves, we can’t understand the deformation processes. Everything deeper down influences what happens on the surface.”

Ironically, Brownlee’s favorite hobby takes place well above the Earth’s surface.       

Toward the end of her freshman year at Princeton, out of the blue, her roommate announced that they were going skydiving; without a second thought, Brownlee agreed.

“I loved it immediately,” Brownlee said. “The first jump was a tandem, and I knew I wanted to learn to do it myself. That summer, I went through a class of seven jumps, all of which were solo.”

Next, Brownlee did the 20 jumps necessary to get her license. She has now jumped more than 1,500 times. This includes seven jumps during a recent trip to the drop zone in New Jersey, where she did most of her skydiving in college.

“It really is an indescribable feeling. It’s weightless, like you’re flying,” she said. “What I enjoy about it, like with other sports, is when you see improvement. Each time you get a little bit better.”

In graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, Brownlee got good. So good, in fact, that she was asked to join a four-person skydiving team sponsored by a company that flew her to Indiana for four days of practice each month.

The all-female team — a rarity in 2005 — placed fourth in the world, and second among teams from the United States, in the World Cup that year in Arizona.

Brownlee was the team’s videographer in the competition, in which the evaluation of grips and completion of proper formations within 40 seconds was judged by video.

Although Brownlee considers herself a daredevil, the former college hockey player says the thrill isn’t the only thing that entices her.

“Definitely an aspect of it is being in nature,” Brownlee said. “When you’re under the parachute, it’s quiet and beautiful. Most people that are into skydiving are also into nature and the outdoors.”