Picabo Fraas

Picabo Fraas, who recently completed her first year in the M.A. program at Oregon State University’s History and Philosophy of Science Program, received the History and Philosophy of Science Graduate Student Essay Award for her paper, “Continents Apart: The 1926 Symposium of American Petroleum Geologists and the Rejection of Alfred Wegener’s Theory of Continental Drift.” The award, which came with a small scholarship, is awarded annually to a graduate student with the best essay written throughout the course of the academic year. 

Fraas was nominated by her major professor, Professor Jacob Hamblin. Fraas wrote the paper for OSU’s annual fall graduate seminar, Environmental History in Context. Fraas was celebrated at the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion’s annual awards ceremony, which was conducted over Zoom. 

The award was particularly meaningful for Fraas because the topic aligned closely with her research interests. Fraas studies the history of geology and paleontology. Lately her focus has been on the role of women in the field of geology in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this paper, Fraas focused on Alfred Wegener. Wegener was a geologist who originally came up with the idea of continental drift. When Wegener first announced his theory of continental drift, it was immediately rejected by his colleagues. The typical reasons that historians have cited as the reasons why continental drift was rejected because it was thought that Wegener did not provide a mechanism for continental drift. But, as Fraas quickly learned early during her undergraduate courses at the University of California, Santa Barbara the reality of the rejection of continental drift is much more complicated. That is why this topic was of particular interest to Fraas, since it was a way for her to explore the rejection of continental drift, especially by American geologists. 

In the paper, Fraas focuses specifically on the 1926 Symposium of American Petroleum Geologists largely because it has become an icon of the “American Stance” on the debate of whether or not to accept continental drift. Fraas argues that American geologists rejected the theory of continental drift not because of a lack of mechanism, but rather because it went directly against the American scientific method of the time. 

In order to conduct the research, Fraas consulted the papers which were presented at the 1926 Symposium, which have been published in books. She also consulted digitized newspaper articles from the time about the Symposium. And even though the paper does not directly tie into Fraas’s master’s research, there were elements in the research that she would like to pursue further. Specifically, Fraas found the fear amongst geologists of accepting Wegener’s theories because they believed it could destabilize and delegitimize their field, an interesting avenue of research to explore in the future.

Fraas is quite excited about winning the award. As a first year master’s student, she was competing with all the graduate students in the program, many of which have more tenure and seniority in the department. She feels honored to have her writing recognized amidst all the excellent graduate students in the department. And as for future students doing research, Fraas credits journaling for her success. “I’ve recently started to journal my thoughts as I am researching which has been immensely helpful.” And that certainly has shown! Congratulations Picabo!