Karen Layou wearing academic regalia and holding her 3-month-old twins
Layou, pictured here with her 3-month-old twins, completed a Ph.D. in geology at the University of Georgia. Credit: Karen Layou
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Karen Layou started her college career as a chemical engineering major. But after a year and a half, she realized she hated it. One day she stumbled upon a small museum on the Penn State campus, tucked away in the geology building.

“It was like being reunited with old friends,” Layou said. She’d collected rocks as a child and even categorized them for a third-grade science fair project. The mineral samples and fossils in the museum’s collection reawakened her childhood interests, including a passion for paleontology sparked by a family road trip to the Grand Canyon when she was in high school.

At the museum Layou decided to go upstairs to the geology office and ended up speaking with the dean, and changed her major that day. Layou graduated and went on to complete a master’s program at the University of Cincinnati before working for what is now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. While she learned a lot, she wasn’t satisfied.

As a high-schooler, Layou visited the Grand Canyon with her family—and was inspired to pursue a geoscience career. She is pictured here with her mother. Credit: Karen Layou

“I decided that, no, I need to go back and get [a] Ph.D. to fulfill that promise I made to myself, to get myself back out to landscapes I love,” Layou said. She earned a Ph.D. in geology at the University of Georgia and then obtained a position at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., as a sabbatical replacement. She found that she enjoyed teaching and “cobbled together” a career by working as an adjunct professor at several schools. In 2013, she became a professor of geology at Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Va.

Since then, Layou has been involved in Supporting and Advancing Geoscience Education at Two-Year Colleges, or SAGE 2YC. The project aims to broaden participation in the geosciences, clarify transfer and workforce pathways for students at 2-year colleges, and emphasize best teaching practices for faculty. Layou especially loves sharing science with nonscience majors and “spreading the love—the geo love.”

SAGE 2YC has also been able to provide mentoring for students and send them to the annual Virginia Geological Field Conference. “We were able to bring 2-year college students to mix with professional geologists and just talk about a day in the life of their jobs,” Layou said. She will also continue to further geoscience education as the incoming president of the Geo2YC division of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

Layou encourages audiences to learn more about SAGE 2YC and also to check out the free online textbook she’s been working on.

This profile is part of a special series in our September 2021 issue on science careers.

—Jack Lee, Science Writer


Lee, J. (2021), Karen Layou: A wider 2-year track, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO162272. Published on 24 August 2021.

Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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