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2008 GSA Birdsall-Dreiss Lecture Tour

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Dr. Larry MckayIn 2008, I had the honor to serve as the Geological Society of America – Hydrogeology Division’s Birdsall-Dreiss Distinguished Lecturer. It was a great experience and I’d like to share with you some of the highlights. First, I’d like to thank everyone who made this tour possible, including my family, GSA Hydro Division and the numerous hosts and students who made this such a productive and enjoyable tour. I’d especially like to thank my colleagues and administrators at the University of Tennessee for providing release time and additional travel funds which allowed me to more than double the size of the tour.

I began the tour in late 2007, with a “kick-off” talk in my home department at UT. This was an overview of the three talks that I intended to give during my tour: “Cracks in the Clay”, “Germs and Geology” and “Chattanooga Creek”, each of which covers a different aspect of hydrogeological research. In early January of 2008, I went to Bangladesh where I was working on a microbial water quality research project with co-investigators at Dhaka University, Columbia University, Barnard Colleg and UNC-Chapel Hill. My first “official” Birdsall-Dreiss lecture was at Dhaka U. in front of an enthusiastic audience of 45 students, who stood and bowed when I entered the classroom. It was a wonderful start to the tour. Over the rest of the spring term, I visited 24 universities or research institutes, starting in the southeastern U.S. and California, then working my way north into Massachusetts and Ontario. Highlights of the spring tour included a Mardis Gras parade at LSU, sunshine and fine wines in California, a Red Sox game while visiting Boston University and white-water canoeing at the Univ. of Arkansas’s Hydrology Days. I also met some amazing researchers and students, including: a standing-room-only crowd of women undergraduates at Smith College, who peppered me with questions; a pair of international grad students at Univ. of Waterloo who interviewed me for a Brazilian groundwater magazine; a visit to Penn State’s Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory; and a tour of a municipal sewage plant that injects treated wastewater into deep saline aquifers in Miami. I hope that the hosts and students learned as much from my lectures as I did from my discussions with them.

In June of 2008, I traveled to Europe for the start of a month-long visit that extended from Switzerland to Norway. This trip included enjoying the European Cup football festivities in Zurich, while I visited first-rate research programs at ETH and EAWAGS. Then on to Germany, with stops at Eberhard Karls University (the 2nd oldest university in Germany), the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, and the University of Goettingen. Then on to Denmark to visit the University of Copenhagen (KU) and the Danish Geologic Survey (GEUS), where I’d worked during my post-doc in 1992. I taught a 2-day short-course on fractured clays to PhD students at KU, in addition to giving all 3 B-D lectures in Copenhagen. I met with many old friends, including the Director of GEUS, who I first met while we were both grad students in 1988. My wife, Anna, and our 3 children joined me in Copenhagen for a few days of vacation before we took the ferry to Norway and visited an old friend at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. There, I lectured to a class of international students studying onsite sewage disposal. They were working on projects that ranged from septic fields for individual homes, to the problem of how to provide portable sewage services to millions of visitors on religious pilgrimages in India. The diversity and productivity of hydrogeologic research programs in Europe was remarkable and a reminder of the great benefits of international travel for students and researchers.

In the fall of 2008, I added 12 more destinations to my tour. This included Northern Illinois University, where one of my former students is a faculty member and where earlier in the year a tragic shooting in a geology/oceanography class claimed six lives. Then up to western Canada, where I gave a lecture at the University of Northern B.C. in my home town of Prince George, where my father finally got to see me give a talk. I had a great visit to the University of Montana, where we visited sites contaminated by arsenic-rich mine wastes and made a side-trip to Yosemite National Park for a day of fly-fishing. In October, I attended the fall GSA Conference and gave one of my final talks to an audience of about 130.

Overall, I visited 46 universities, research institutions, geologic surveys or conferences and gave a total of 55 talks. The combined audience was almost 2200 people. This included 35 institutions which I’d never visited before, 6 universities which had never previously hosted a Birdsall-Dreiss lecturer, and 6 predominantly undergraduate colleges. It was a great experience and I think the lecture tour achieved its annual goal of sharing knowledge and spreading goodwill within the hydrogeological community. My parting advice is to encourage GSA members to invite future Birdsall-Dreiss lecturers to visit your institution. Lecturers are always looking for new destinations and I can guarantee that you and your students or colleagues will enjoy the experience.