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Tech Regents Tour Seismology Instrument Center

SOCORRO, N.M. September 24, 2010 – The New Mexico Tech Board of Regents were treated to a glimpse into the nation’s leading seismology research center during the September meeting on campus.

The Board met at the PASSCAL Instrument Center, which is a seismology lending library and research facility funded by the National Science Foundation and operated by New Mexico Tech.

Dr. Rick Aster, the principal investigator for the Instrument Center throughout its 10 years in Socorro, presented a brief overview of the facility and its capabilities. Aster, who is also the chairman of the Earth and Environmental Science Department, explained the role seismology plays in Earth sciences, earthquake preparedness and industry. He also talked about how the discipline of seismology has changed in recent years.

The IRIS PASSCAL Instrument Center has an annual budget of $4.2 million and employees 37 full-time employees and dozens of students. The Center supports about 65 seismology research projects around the world every year. Any scientist who has academic support and funding can access the Center’s equipment for research use. Aster said the Instrument Center has played a key role in democratizing seismology in the United States.

New Mexico Tech’s operation – and the seismology consortium that supports its work – has earned respect and kudos from the funding agency.

“The National Science Foundation recognizes this as a poster child for community support,” Aster said. “We are ambassadors for open data. We are influential as best we can be.”

While research divisions such as the PASSCAL Instrument Center are flourishing, the state-funded areas – meaning academics – area bracing for more budget cuts. The latest round of cuts is 3.2 percent for the 2010-2011 budget. In all, the state has reduced the New Mexico Tech budget by more than 14 percent over two years.

Regent Richard Carpenter said, “Next year will be horrible. A 10 percent [budget cut] is a reasonable projection.”

In the business portion of the meeting, the Regents heard about increased enrollment.

The number of new students at Tech this year is 100 greater than last year’s freshman class. The total student population is 1,928.
Some basic science courses have increased in size and increasing demand for classroom space has led to shuffling of class locations. Also, retention has improved. Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Peter Gerity said third-semester retention is now at 73.6 percent, up from 72 percent the previous year.

University president Dr. Daniel H. Lopez discussed plans to build a new dormitory. He said he is considering two options: a revenue bond of $12.5 million for construction or authorizing a third party to build and operate a dorm.

In other matters:

* Local resident Damacio Lopez approached the board during the public comment time. Lopez asked the board to consider abandoning plans to create a walking path atop ‘M’ Mountain. Lopez claims the area is contaminated from testing of munitions. Regent Carpenter asked if Damacio Lopez had any scientific studies to support his claim of contamination; Lopez did not.

* The Regents approved a new list of bank signatories. Due to retirements and personnel changes, the official list had become outdated.

* Dr. Gerity informed the Board that Dr. William Rison, electrical engineering professor, was approved for sabbatical leave. Dr. Rison has several research projects that he will work over the next year.

* Dr. Lopez will be meeting with officials of Yangtze University in China in coming weeks. Dr. Robert Lee, director of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center, has championed the cooperative agreement, which to date has brought seven students from China to Tech, predominantly in petroleum engineering. Lopez said one goal is to bring 30 new students to Tech each year. Tech and Yangtze also are planning collaborative research projects and faculty exchanges as well.

* Dr. Lopez informed the Board that Freeport MacMoRan is donating about 2,200 acres in Playas, N.M., to the university. A portion of the land would be used to expand the runway at the university’s research and training facility in Playas. Airport improvements will be largely paid for by federal agencies.

* Dr. Lopez presented the September list of graduates, which includes eight bachelor’s, six master’s and two doctoral degrees. Dr. Gerity said students are very appreciative of the university’s new policy to award degrees on a monthly basis. Many graduates cannot begin jobs until they are officially graduated.

* Lonnie Marquez, vice president of finance, presented the monthly financial analysis. Apart from looming budget cuts, the university has managed to stay within its budget, he said.

* Meeting as the Employee Benefit Trust board, the Regents learned that the Trust has had revenues of $1.7 million and expenditures of $1.9 million. However, Marquez said the discrepancy is typical after the summer months, when faculty members on nine-month contracts are not contributing. Marquez said the fund is looking strong.

* The Board approved the sale of several assets, including three seismometer tanks and a correlation spectrometer.

* Marquez presented the board with a list of research and public service project that do not include expansion. The state had previously only requested a list of projects requests that included increased funding. The new list includes projects not seeking increased funding.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech