Interviews: Geochemist and petrologist Alberto Saal

saal1Alberto and the other “Los Tiberones” (The Shark Watch, 12 to 4) wait for a dredge to be recovered. Karen Harpp (left), Alberto Saal, Bob Reynolds and Rob Otto.


When Alberto Saal was about 13 years old, he would sit in front of the television with his parents, older brother and sister watching Carl Sagan - the world famous astronomer and public champion for science. The scientist’s words sent chills down Alberto’s spine. “The idea that we are all made from the stuff of stars, that we are cosmic matter evolved over time to the point where we can communicate is amazing to me,” Alberto says. “I like to travel and communicate with the people I meet. When you think about conversations, we are sharing space and time that will never come back again. I don’t think about it when I’m doing it. But when I walk away from a half-hour conversation with someone happy, I have a strong appreciation for the interaction.”

A look of disbelief as a rock dredge yields just one tiny piece of glass. Because of the high technology available for geochemical analyses, even a tiny chip a glass is sufficient to allow the chemical composition of the lava to be determined.
Neither of Alberto’s parents had the chance to go to college. His father started working right out of high school, was married and had a family to care for. “My parents were keen on making sure we had a strong education,” Alberto, now 40, says. “It was very important. Not by accident, my brother and sister and I are oriented to education and science.” His brother, Aaron, is a medical doctor of psychology and his sister, Linda, is a mathematics professor at the University of Córdoba, in Argentina where the family grew up.

In high school, an exceptional teacher motivated Alberto to study chemistry. “If the same professor had taught something else, probably I would like something else.” Looking to continue his chemistry studies in the mountains, rather than the lab, Alberto turned to geology at the University of Córdoba. “My mentor was Carlos Gordillo and he studied petrology and geochemistry. He was the most serious scientist in the geology department. He loved what he was doing and was exciting to learn from.”

As Alberto was finishing his Ph.D. at Córdoba, he decided he wanted to leave Argentina and move to the United States. When Alberto received the fax from Prof. Fred Frey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) inviting him to study, “I knew I was holding something in my hand that would be a huge change in my life.” For part of his research at MIT, Alberto traveled to the mountains of Argentina, collecting rock samples from high in the Andes between 35°S and 37°S.

Alberto was the first to try out the new pool...fully clothed, of course.
During that time his wife, Eliana, finished her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Córdoba and joined him. Eliana now works at the Department of Molecular Biology at Harvard Massachusetts General Hospital. From 1994 to 1999 Alberto focused his studies in oceanography, earning a second Ph.D. through MIT’s program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Woods Hole, Mass.

“Those six years at Woods Hole were the best in my academic life.” Alberto says. “I had the opportunity to work with Stan Hart, who is in my opinion the best advisor and best scientist I ever met. I was with an excellent group of people who are extremely good scientists. It's difficult to get a group of people together who are nice, work hard and are happy doing what they are doing.” Alberto begins his research with many different questions. “As I progress in my research, I give priority to the questions I can find answers to first.”

He currently works as an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. And even though he and his wife work in other cities, they make sure to see each other often, at least every other weekend. “It depends on our workloads. We’ll take turns, whoever has the least amount of work will go to the other city for the week.” This is Alberto’s second seagoing research expedition. He is excited about the Galápagos lava we are collecting and the questions he will be able to answer with them.