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I was born in Berea, Kentucky and graduated from Berea College with a degree in Geology.

I hold a Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several honorary degrees, including Doctor of Science degrees from Berea College and from Oberlin College. I taught Geology at Oberlin College for over 20 years.

I served as Acting President of Oberlin, President of Franklin and Marshall College, President of Reed College, President of the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, and President and Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

President Reagan and later, President George H. W. Bush, appointed me to the National Science Board, where I served for 12 years. Asteroid 9739 Powell is named for me.

I have written eleven books, the most recent of which is Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth, published by Columbia University Press. In 2015 I was elected a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).

I am Executive Director of the National Physical Science Consortium.