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Heaven and Earth
Gene and Diane Smith have spent nearly 70 years combined at UNLV, mentoring students and doing research in their respective fields. That’s geoscience for him and astronomy for her. While both will retire at the end of June, Gene will stay involved with the university as an emeritus professor. Here, the couple reflects on their time here, their research, and retirement plans.
Ph.D., University of New Mexico
Rebel since: I came in 1978 for a year as a visiting professor and returned in 1980. I’ve been at UNLV ever since.
Why UNLV? Nevada has some of the most spectacular geology of any place on earth. It is like a Disneyland for geologists. I spent many years working in Wisconsin and probably had seen every single rock there was to see.
Why geoscience? I was always interested in geography, but didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started school at Wayne State University. I took a geology class and the professor researched volcanoes as well as the geology of the moon. I started working for him as an undergraduate, which sparked my interest in the field.
Research interests: My primary research interest is volcanology. I try to understand why volcanoes form where they do and why they start and stop erupting. My research has taken me worldwide — from central Nevada to Russia and Antarctica to Mexico and South Africa. Since 1986, I have been involved with volcanic hazard studies for the proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
One of my graduate students is currently working on her master’s thesis about a fascinating project at the southern tip of South Africa. Last summer, we found small pieces of volcanic glass in a cave that might be from an eruption that occurred in Indonesia nearly 70,000 years ago. The eruption was so large that it could have changed the Earth’s climate. It was at a time when there was a population bottleneck, which means a sharp reduction in the number of living individuals due to environmental events. It is possible that this volcanic eruption might have indirectly caused the near extinction of humans. We are working with archeologists from Arizona State on this project and hope to have more results in the next year.
What has surprised you about your field? The better question is what hasn’t surprised me. There have been so many exciting things that have happened in the last 20 years. We have a better understanding of the entire volcanic process and how everything fits together, which can partly be attributed to better technology. We now have better analyses of rocks and a better understanding of the Earth’s mantle. We can see variations in temperature patterns, can see different rocks, and can correlate what is happening at a depth of 500 km to what is happening at 100 km to what is happening at the surface.
Post-retirement plans: Doing the same thing I am doing now as far as research and mentoring graduate students, but without the teaching responsibilities and administrative work. I also will do more traveling and spending time with my wife and two dogs.
People would be surprised to know: I am a huge baseball fan. One of my ambitions is to visit all 30 major league baseball parks. I have been to 14 so far with Wrigley Field being my favorite. I also love the Las Vegas 51s and have season tickets.
Career achievements and milestones: The first year I was here, I started the geoscience master’s program, which began in 1982. Immediately after, we wrote a proposal for a Ph.D. program. The process took nearly 15 years, but the Ph.D. program began in the early 1990s. I served as department chair from 1983-86 and served as associate chair twice and graduate coordinator four times.
I was awarded the Harry Reid Silver State Research Award in 2006, the College of Sciences Distinguished Researcher Award in 1999, and starting July 1, I will be an emeritus professor.
I have mentored approximately 40 graduate students. Many have gone on to be professors, while others are working for mining and oil companies and geotechnical firms. One student is working as a corporate lawyer while several others are teachers, including two in the Clark County School District.
Volcanoes in Las Vegas: A lot of people do not realize that the mountains to the east and south of Las Vegas are highly eroded volcanoes or that volcanoes that erupted millions of years ago surround the Lake Mead area.
Associate Professor of Astronomy
Ph.D., University of California, Santa Cruz
Rebel since: 1980: I came to UNLV when Gene accepted a full-time position in the department of geoscience. I was hoping to get a position at UNLV as well and was fortunate enough to join the department of physics and astronomy.
Why astronomy? I started out studying chemistry in college because my parents and school counselors told me it would be a practical field. But, I didn’t enjoy the subject and changed my major to astronomy after taking an introductory class from Helen Pillans, a famous astronomer at University of California, Berkeley, where I did my undergraduate studies.
Research interests: My research involves trying to understand hot young stars with unusually strong magnetic fields and unusual chemical compositions.
Women in astronomy: Astronomy, like all of the “hard sciences,” is under-represented by women, but not as much so as say engineering or physics. When I was a student, women weren’t even allowed to observe at several of the major observatories but this has changed for the better today.
What has surprised you about your field? Dark energy — it surprised every astronomer. Dark energy is a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and tends to accelerate the expansion of the universe.
What you enjoyed most about your job? Solving research problems and teaching enthusiastic students.
Post-retirement plans: Traveling, gardening, and scientific puttering.
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