Hydrology Grad's Success Paves The Way For High-Speed Hobby

Since the 1950s, the hydrology program at New Mexico Tech has produced volumes of important research and hundreds of graduates.

Ward Herst, Class of 1986, outside of his consulting firm in St. Charles, Mo.

Ward Herst is among those Tech graduates who have translated a degree in hydrology to a successful career in his field. Herst earned a master’s from Tech in 1986 and now owns and operates a consulting firm that employs 25 professionals and is active in nearly every state and Puerto Rico. His professional success has created opportunities for him in other areas too – notably race car driving.

The Days Before Email

A native of Burton, Ohio, Herst stayed close to home for college and earned his bachelor’s from Kent State University. As Herst began to look for a graduate school, he knew he wanted to enroll in a program that was based on math and physics. He had never heard of New Mexico Tech, but a fellow student suggested he consider a small university on the Rio Grande.

“This was before the days of the Internet,” Herst said. “I sent off in the mail for a hard copy of the course catalog. I looked through it and it looked good. I don’t believe I spoke to any professors before I went out.”

Herst worked his way through Kent State and did not own a vehicle. He loaded all his earthly possessions into a backpack and a suitcase and hopped on a Greyhound bus – back in the days when the bus made daily stops in Socorro.

He arrived in Socorro after midnight and a fellow graduate student picked him up at the bus station.

“I came to Socorro sight unseen,” he said. “I fell in love with the area from Day 1. The first thing that comes to mind is the natural beauty.”

He immediately began exploring the scenic wonders available in the region. During his time at Tech, he spent a lot of time at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. He assisted other graduate students with research projects, traveling to the refuge almost daily. Herst said he quickly fell in love with the natural beauty of central New Mexico … and green chile.

“It took me about two days to discover that I love green chile,” he said. “The cheeseburgers … oh my God! I haven’t been able to find anything that’s remotely close to it in St. Louis.”

The Rigors of Academia

One of Herst’s most lasting memories of academics at Tech was his introduction to problem solving. His advisor, Dr. Dan Stephens, gave all incoming graduates students a two-week project. Students were asked to provide ample potable water to a fictional community, given parameters about aquifer thickness, yield, recharge and population.

“The unique thing was that, given the parameters, it wasn’t possible,” Herst said. “All of us new grad students were struggling to figure it out. Welcome to real world, you can’t do it. That started my Tech education out on the right foot – it’s practical problem-solving."

Herst said the rigors of earning a master’s at Tech prepared him well to launch a successful career. He said Tech’s program is particularly adept at delivering an education balanced between theoretical areas and practical applications.

“Tech professors are good at combining theoretical excellence and practical application,” Herst said. “Tech graduates are prepared to go into industry, as I chose, and utilize information from the environmental standpoint.”

Launching a Career

After graduating, Herst took his first job in the Denver area. After a few years, he moved to St. Louis, where he launched his consulting firm in 1998 in nearby St. Charles, Mo. Herst & Associates is a specialized firm that offers environmental consulting services – groundwater and soil evaluation, impact investigations, remediation and corrective measures, permitting and much more. The company’s website lists an impressive array of services and ongoing projects.

“We focus on private industry,” he said. “Our client base is manufacturing facilities, industrial facilities, landfills, mining operations – people who have regulations to follow.”

He started his firm after clients and potential clients consistently commented on the need for increased responsiveness and client awareness by consultants. From the start, Herst wanted to accentuate service and technical excellence. Herst & Associates was recognized as the No. 1 Service Provider in the United States by the National Business Incubator Association in 2001.

While he has a master’s in hydrology, Herst credited the Tech curriculum with preparing him to become an engineer as well. He is a registered Professional Engineer in 16 states, a licensed (or certified) geologist in 35 states and a licensed hydrogeologist in California.

“My technical background from New Mexico Tech was the key to opening up a lot of opportunities – not only for technical understanding of processes, but in engineering disciplines too,” he said.

The Need for Speed

Herst always stays busy. He and his wife, Debby, have a daughter, 20, and twin sons who are 17. He’s an entrepreneur, scientist and engineer. He is also active with his church and is a certified youth and high school wrestling coach – among other things. However, his passion these days is driving fast cars. 

While focusing on a career and family, then his business, Herst never imagined that driving race cars would be part of his life.
“I loved watching racing as a child,” he said. “But I didn’t think there was any way for me – from Northeast Ohio – to be a race car driver.”

Ward Herst in his fire suit posing with his commemorative plate for winning rookie of the year.

About 10 years ago, he hired an engineer at Herst & Associates who had experience as a mechanic and crew chief for a race team. They’d chat about NASCAR or Indy Car races at work periodically. Herst casually mentioned his interest in racing and his employee offered to put him in touch with people who could make it happen.

As a 40-something, he started racing his vintage 1983 Mazda RX-7 racecar in Sports Car Club of America events throughout the Midwest. In 2004, Herst won the Midwest Division Regional Championship in the Grand Touring 2 (GT-2) class and tied for Driver of the Year.

For the past two years, he has been competing in the Skip Barber Racing Series, which provides drivers with pit crews and identical cars. He won the Master’s Championship for drivers over 40 in the 2008-2009 season. He also finished third overall and was second in the Rookie of the Year standings.

Recently he received an offer to race with a professional race team – as long as he can find sponsorship for the race car. Regardless of how far Herst climbs in racing circles, he’s living his dream.

“There’s no other feeling like it,” he said. “There’s no excitement that compares to driving at 170 miles an hour and peeking at the guy beside you, coming to a turn and waiting to see which of the two of you will wait the extra tenth of a second to hit the brakes.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

This profile is part of an ongoing series of features of New Mexico Tech graduates. To nominate someone to be featured, contact Thomas Guengerich at tguengerich@admin.nmt.edu or (575) 835-5617..