Wheatcraft takes reins of hydro graduate program

1/8/2007 8:00:00 AM

From the strong smell of fresh-brewed coffee in his office to a beloved Nikon D-200 camera that is never far from his grasp, to the vintage 1960s-era rock-n-roll posters on the walls touting appearances of bands like Big Brother and The Holding Company at San Francisco's legendary Fillmore Auditorium, it is obvious Steve Wheatcraft is a busy man, a person of varied interests and notable accomplishment.

Wheatcraft, whose association with the University and its Nevada System of Higher Education partner, the Desert Research Institute, goes back to 1978, has a diverse teaching and research portfolio, making him uniquely qualified to head the University's graduate program for hydrologic sciences. In November, he was named the program's new director, succeeding Scott Tyler.

"Steve has been a wonderful asset to the graduate program for hydrologic sciences during the 27 years he has been at DRI and this University," says Gina Tempel, chairperson of the Department of Geological Sciences and Engineering in the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, part of the College of Science. "He has been the major advisor for over 40 graduate students of which he has graduated 10 Ph.D. and 27 masters students."

"So, if you consider that several of those 10 Ph.D. students have gone on to research and teaching positions themselves and have advised and graduated a second generation of Ph.D. and masters students in hydrologic sciences, then you begin to understand the significant and wide-reaching contribution of Steve Wheatcraft to mentoring scientists in the field of hydrology and hydrogeology."

For his part, Wheatcraft is well aware of the program's strength - it has consistently been ranked among the nation's top 10 graduate programs for the better part of a decade.

He sees his role in not only continuing the high standard established by predecessors such as Tyler and John Warwick, now executive director of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI, but in actually finding new ways to increase the program's visibility, as well as increasing student and faculty participation at national meetings and in honing the program's website to become more of a research and recruiting tool.

Recently, I sat down with Wheatcraft in his office in the Laxalt Mineral Research Building to discuss the new director's career, his vision for the program's future, and as well, a few side notes regarding the film "Borat" and why that fictional character's homeland Kazakhstan actually could hold an important part of Nevada's research future.

Wheatcraft, who has captured much of his work and travel through the world not only through dozens of papers and presentations, has also documented the places he's visited through the roving, inquisitive, creative eye as a professional photographer. His honors include his election as Fellow of the Geological Society of America (GSA) in 1995, his chairmanship of the GSA's hydrogeology division in 2000 and selection to serve on the National Academy of Sciences panels. His work in groundwater hydrology has been featured on NOVA and BBC's Horizons (the BBC's version of NOVA).

Question: One of the things that is interesting about your career is how you have both experience at DRI and this University. How does this breadth of experience help you?

Wheatcraft: The importance of that is probably two-fold. First of all, even when I was involved with research at DRI, I was also always teaching. I taught my first course here (at this University) in the spring of 1979. A lot of the research projects were funded by entities like the Department of Energy and EPA and were fairly large-budget projects. It helped, because I was able to acquire quite a bit of experience that would have been hard to get if I had been in a regular academic position. And that experience has certainly been invaluable in developing the kind of research that I do.

Of course, for this job, having spent 15 years at DRI, means that I have a complete understanding of DRI. DRI is very important to the success of the program, because in some ways the program actually started at DRI with (the hiring of George Burke) Maxey  (in 1962, when Maxey, in a dual DRI-Mackay School of Mines appointment, founded the University's water research program).

Q: You shared a PowerPoint presentation with me regarding the program that had a pretty interesting piece of information in it. Namely that due to the interdisciplinary nature of your program, the director of the program has very little say in hiring faculty, as they often belong to colleges or schools or individual departments first. In your discussions with (Provost) John Frederick and (Vice President for Research) Mark Brenner, it sounds as if this might be changing a bit. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?

Wheatcraft: There is one slide in the PowerPoint that makes two statements on how the program works. One is that the program, in quotes, "owns the students and degrees." What that means is that the students apply to this program—they don't apply to individual departments. We attract a lot of really, really good students because of the reputation of the program. So that's a real advantage.

The other advantage to owning the degrees is that the hydrologic sciences faculty decides on the degree requirements for the program. So we're able to design a curriculum that is tailor-made to what these students need.

That's all good. The second statement, that the departments own the faculty and the courses, means that even though we are the largest science graduate program on campus, if one of our faculty were to decide to leave, it would be up to the department they are from to decide if they want to replace that person with another person from the same field. Yes, of course, any influence I can have, either informally or formally, that I can have with a department in the hiring of faculty will be good for the program. We have yet to see how this is going to shake out, but the provost and vice president for research have agreed to develop memoranda of understanding between the program and the involved college deans.

There were two aspects that I put together for that PowerPoint—one was visibility, and the other was stability, and obviously having a say in the hiring of faculty will help tremendously with our stability.

Q: Speaking of visibility, you have a top-10, nationally ranked program. In your presentation, you actually said that in your mind, you think of this as a top-three program, or a program with that type of potential. To break into the top three, how can the program increase its visibility?

Wheatcraft: Perception is reality. What causes a top 10 program to be viewed as a top three program? Well, it's visibility. Some of these things I can do something about as program director, and some of them I can't. One of the most important things is to produce lots of publications in peer-reviewed journals from our faculty and students. That's something that isn't broken.

The next thing, high levels of activity by both our faculty and students at national meetings. I can contribute there by using some of the hydro program budget to fund travel to give talks at national meetings.

And then, to encourage our faculty to be active in the associations. For instance, this year, Scott Tyler is the chairman of the Hydrogeology Division of the Geological Society of America (GSA). The Hydrogeology Division is the largest and most active division of the GSA. I was the chair of that division in 2000. That's good for the program, it's good for Scott, and that's the kind of thing that makes people realize that we really are a top-notch program.

The website is also important. We have a pretty good website already, but I have lots of ideas where we can add to it. Things like creating a research tool for prospective students so that if they are interested in surface water modeling or groundwater contaminant transport, they can click a button on that that would bring up a list of the faculty who have research interests in that area. You can find that information now if you work hard enough, but you have to drill down a bit to find it. We really want to create a more active website, one that will help pull in more prospective students.

Q: How many students does the program have right now?

Wheatcraft: Right now we have about 65 graduate students, roughly 30 percent are Ph.D. students and roughly 70 percent are master's students. I'd like to see the program grow. I don't have a number in mind, but we've got to always remember not to let the tail wag the dog here. One of the unique things about our program is we admit students only after a faculty member has agreed to be that student's adviser, and if that faculty member has the funding to do that. With only a couple of exceptions, all of our students are funded through teaching or research assistantships. As a result, our graduation rate is near 100 percent.

What I really mean, then, when I say I hope we can continue to attract more students is that I want more of our faculty to get more involved in bringing in more students. Partly, this means growing our faculty, and we've added three or four new faculty through DRI just this semester.

Q: Student success is a real point of pride with you.

Wheatcraft: Nothing makes me more proud than my students. It's really true. Students are your product. If you build houses, after you've built a house, you can stand back and admire your work. If you're a professor, your product is your students. The success of your people, to me, is what your success is all about.

My first Ph.D. student was Ken Taylor (a DRI faculty member considered one of the world's foremost experts on global climate change through his study of ice cores in Antarctica). Just as an aside, Ken's work has been well-publicized over the years. A few years ago he had a six-page spread in Time Magazine. He was actually slated to be on the cover of Time that week. But it was the same week when (comedienne) Ellen De Generes announced that she was coming out of the closet and that she was gay. So she was on the cover that week. There was still a little flash on the cover about something about greenhouse warming in Antarctica, but you had to look inside to actually see Ken's face (laughs).

And there are others. Scott Tyler was my student, and he was the 1999 Henry Darcy Distinguished Lecturer (one of the highest honors given out by the National Groundwater Association). There's a whole bunch of others who are on their way. I'm really proud of all of them. The neat thing is we have students of students of mine who have gotten their Ph.D.'s. There have been times when I've been on a student's research committee, and all the other committee members are either my students, or my students' students (laughs).

Just recently there was a position open at Texas A&M, and all three of the finalists were my former students. I wrote letters for all three, and I had to be really careful, because all three were outstanding students. In all my letters, I gave them the praise they deserved.

Q: Let's back up for a moment. Way back when, what motivated you to get into this field?

Wheatcraft: I can tell the story from a couple of different standpoints.

I'll admit this sounds a little corny, but I think it helps explain why. I hate telling this story because it makes me sound way older than I really am (laughs). I had great-grandparents that were farmers in north Missouri. My great-grandparents were alive and well into my 20s. They lived on a farm that didn't have indoor plumbing. They had a well. So whenever we'd go up there, and of course, this was an anachronism—this wasn't the 1930s, this was the 1950s and 1960s—they just were very simple people but they never bothered to upgrade where they had lived since the 1920s. They had a well, and they had this white-enamel bucket and they would pump the well with a handle, and they would bring a bucket of water into the kitchen.

Well, I was just obsessed with this well. I was probably seven or eight years old, and it was well understood by everyone that when we were there, I was the one that got to pump the well (laughs). If I was running around playing and I had found out that they had gone and drawn water without letting me do it, I would get mad (laughs). I didn't think about for years, until I had become a hydrogeologist, and I remember thinking at some point, "I wonder if that was a precursor of things to come."

More seriously, my undergraduate degree was in geology. I went to graduate school at the University of Hawaii and intended to go into marine geophysics. The second semester of my first year in graduate school, I took a course in groundwater hydrology almost literally because, I had to admit this (laughs), it was at the right time. And I almost instantly fell in love with it. I was really good in physics and math, but what really attracted me to it was I using all these tools I had learned and really enjoyed and I was using these tools to solve problems in hydrogeology. I was so excited to be able to use these quantitative tools to solve earth-science-related problems, I just took off.

Q: Along those lines, what I've found fascinating about hydrologists or hydrogeologists is this interesting mix of the quantitative, and as well, a true love of being outdoors.

Wheatcraft: That's pretty common among the professors, and the students. Our students have some real common traits. They're real smart, they're real energetic, they serious about what their doing. And, almost all of them are real outdoors types. Almost all of them are out there skiing or snowboarding or kayaking. One of my students was a professional river guide last summer. Several of them are members of the ski patrol. One of my students is on the University's cycling team. They're usually very athletic. We have this great environment that we live in, and it's great that they take advantage of it.

Q: One of the other things that strikes me is how important this program is to all who are involved with it. It goes beyond simply earning a degree. It holds an important place in the heart to most of you.

Wheatcraft: It does.  We have three institutions (Nevada, DRI and the USGS) involved with our program. Within the University alone we have three colleges and eight or nine departments. Our students are spread out across the state, all over the place. Yet, I can guarantee you that all of our students know each other. They work together, they play together, they socialize together. And one of the main reasons why is our once-a-month colloquium series where we all get together afterward and socialize. The students run it, and we have food and drink afterward. I am convinced this helps make us the most cohesive graduate program on campus.

The second aspect that has taken over the past four or five years is SAIWI - the Student Association for International Water Issues. It's become a recruiting tool for us on our website (the organization encourages students to participate in world water issues, such as traveling to developing countries to improve their water delivery systems). This isn't research—this is service. I think we should go a little further than service and get the students involved with research on international water issues as well.

Let me give you a quick example. I'm trying to find a way to develop to a center for joint studies of the environment and health for our two test sites—the Nevada Test Site and the test site of the former Soviet Union. The purpose would be to not only exploit the similarities between the two sites, but almost more interestingly, the differences.

We have a real opportunity in Kazakhstan because the test site there is owned by the Kazakh people. When they became an independent country, they were the fifth-largest nuclear power in the world. And they renounced their nuclear weapons. They were the only country in the world to renounce their nuclear stockpile. They destroyed their entire nuclear weapon arsenal.

The Kazakh people are very interested in getting a better understanding of the radionuclide transport associated with nuclear testing because their people have been so harmed. There were tens and thousands of people there who died outright from acute radiation poisoning during the atmospheric testing period there. It's estimated now that 1.2 million people there have serious health defects and diseases because of the ionizing radiation from the testing.

Kazakhstan is very interested and very open to having more research done there. The opportunity to study radionuclide transport and to develop a fundamental understanding of the processes there is unique. It's something we're really excited about.

Q: Where would the funding come from?

Wheatcraft: I have some internal funding that the administration has very kindly provided me for the startup of the directorship. That would be enough to fund several students for some trips back and forth as well as some sampling. I'm already writing proposals to NSF and one or more organizations within the U.N. and NATO. Also, Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) has expressed some interest in creating a bill to provide some funding for this.

Of course, this all goes back to the visibility theme. If you have big projects in foreign countries, that improves your visibility.


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