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Geosciences department celebrates a century of learning

At the start of the 20th century, Virginia Tech looked quite different than it does today. There were 728 male students enrolled in the university in 1904, the year that what is known as today's Department of Geosciences was born. The site of the present-day Derring Hall was part of a row of faculty houses. All courses taught in what today is the College of Science took place in one small building that was located at the site of today’s Shanks Hall in the upper quad. Thomas Watson was hired as professor of geology and mineralogy and thus began a program of study that would eventually be recognized internationally for its excellence.

   

Laura Hamm, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geosciences from Raleigh, N.C., received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2007. Laura Hamm, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geosciences from Raleigh, N.C., received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2007.

In the beginning

Watson left the next year, and despite the fact that the science building almost completely burned in 1905, and the total enrollment at what was then called Virginia Polytechnic Institute dropped to 477 during World War I, the department survived thanks to Watson’s replacement, Roy J. Holden. A young geologist who had just completed his Ph.D., Holden served as a dedicated and inspiring mentor to all who took geology at VPI for the next 40 years. Almost single-handedly, he brought the department through the first half of the century.

Even in those early days, being a geology major was not for the faint of heart. The 1904-05 college catalog lists such mandatory courses for geology majors as chemical physics, inorganic chemistry, zoology, and French in the first two years, and metallurgy, mineralogy, organic chemistry, petrography, and German in the last two. In 1907, the department graduated its first major, Joel Watkins, who later became a prosperous mining entrepreneur.

   

Kelly Haus, a Ph.D. candidate in biogeochemistry, is studying heavy metal development in acid mine drainage areas, contaminant transport, and mineral-microbe interaction. Kelly Haus, a Ph.D. candidate in biogeochemistry, studies heavy metal development in acid mine drainage areas, contaminant transport, and mineral-microbe interaction.

Watkins and those who followed him in the early years would have been members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets and enrolled in the “Scientific Department” as it was called. A description for General Geology A, the major’s introductory course, reads,”Lectures, recitations, field and laboratory work. General outlines of the subject including dynamics, structural and historical geology. During the fall and spring, the laboratory period is devoted to field study of geological phenomena near the Institute.”

A modest, but promising start

Today, the geosciences program, which is housed mainly in Derring Hall, harbors more than 20 specialized research facilities, including a unique crystallography lab, a state-of-the-art transmission electron microscope, and a worldwide standard seismograph station. The department also houses a museum containing more than 13,000 mineralogical and paleontological specimens used for research, education, and outreach. Internationally recognized faculty lead research programs in the forefront areas of geosciences, including Earth surface processes, geobiology, geochemistry, geophysics, hydrogeology, mineralogy, petrology, and tectonics.   

   

University Distinguished Professor Robert J. Bodnar has attained several honors since joining Virginia Tech's Department of Geosciences in 1985. University Distinguished Professor Robert J. Bodnar has attained several honors since joining Virginia Tech's Department of Geosciences in 1985. His research on the properties and roles of fluids in natural and synthetic materials is multi-disciplinary, and combines geology, geochemistry, physical chemistry, and planetary, materials, and environmental sciences.

A world-class program

Today, Virginia Tech’s Department of Geosciences is known worldwide and has consistently been ranked among the best geosciences programs in the nation for the past 20 years. In fact, the National Research Council has ranked it as the leading geosciences program in the southeastern United States, public or private.

Research conducted by renowned faculty members and their students spans the entire globe. One-third of the department’s faculty members have won one or more international medals for excellence in science, including the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award, the Bowen Medal, and the Dana Medal. The department has two prestigious Fellows in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and two University Distinguished Professors, the highest honor awarded to faculty at Virginia Tech. Four faculty members have even had minerals named in their honor.

In addition to excellence in teaching, research is a driving force in the department, which reported more than $2.5 million in research expenditures during the 2006-07 academic year. All 22 graduating seniors in geosciences in spring 2008 participated in faculty-mentored research as an undergraduate. At any given time, 80 to 100 undergraduate students are working on degrees in geosciences, and the department awards thousands of dollars in graduate scholarships each year.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Catherine Doss at cdoss@vt.edu, or call (540) 231-5035.

First graduate prominent in southeastern mining operations

    Joel Watkins: the first graduate of the geology program at Virginia Tech

The first graduate of the geology (now geosciences) program at Virginia Tech was Joel Hill Watkins from Charlotte Court House, Va., who finished all requirements with the VPI Class of 1907. Read more.

Meteoric Growth

After Roy Holden's death 1945, Byron Cooper arrived to begin the department's evolution to its status today.

Some notable events since Cooper's arrival include

  • 1947 – Department is renamed to Department of Geology
  • 1950 – Master of Science graduate program in geology started
  • 1951 – Camp Holden field camp opens in Saltville, Va.
  • 1955 – Name changes to Department of Geological Sciences
  • 1955 – Ph.D. program begins
  • 1962 – First courses for non-majors are offered
  • 1963 – Department leaves the School of Engineering and joins the College of Arts and Sciences
  • 1968 – Derring Hall (the site of most of today’s geosciences programs) opens
  • 2003 – Department joins the College of Science as part of university restructuring
  • 2003 – Name changes to Department of Geosciences

Geoscientist solves living mystery, works to help environment

    Michael Hochella in the lab.

Michael F. Hochella Jr. is working to change the way we look at environmental contamination, our drinking water, and our imprint on the environment.

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