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FEATURE: Dr. Rob Bowman, Hydrologist, Feb. 11, 2008

Rob Bowman and tractor

by Valerie Kimble

Right: Dr. Rob Bowman and his 1953 tractor

SOCORRO, N.M., February 11, 2008 – Dr. Rob Bowman, recent recipient of the 2008 Earth Science Achievement Award, came to Socorro and New Mexico Tech, via a long and complex path.

In 1970, the future hydrologist was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, only 35 miles from his hometown in the Detroit suburbs. But through Ford Motor Company, where Bowman’s father was a life-long employee, Bowman received a competitive Ford scholarship which would send him to any college in the United States.

To the Midwestern sophomore, the University of California at Berkeley was ripe with social and intellectual possibilities.

“It was a dynamic place,” Bowman said. He headed west, to a future waiting to unfold.

Bowman didn’t have to wait long. During the third week of classes, his regular physics lab partner was late for class, and a tall, red-headed co-ed sat next to him, making her his new lab partner for the day.

“I almost got up to join my former lab partner, but then thought I’d much rather have a female sitting next to me,” he said with a laugh.

The rest, of course, is history. The co-ed was Karen Bailey, and the couple married after graduating in 1972, she with a degree in philosophy, he with one in chemistry.

Rob and Karen worked in the Bay Area for a while, “living like students and saving money,” he said, for a nine-month vacation through Europe. When they returned, they settled in the Bay Area, where Karen earned a teaching certificate and Rob worked as a chemist.

“But we both felt we wanted to live in a less urban environment,” he said. “I loved to work in chemistry, but grew tired of spending my days in a windowless lab.” So the Bowman-Bailey duo quit their jobs and left on a great adventure.

“We sold off everything, bought a Volkswagen bus and took off on a three-month tour,” Rob said. One of their stops was to Santa Fe, a city Rob had never seen, and one Karen had visited in her teens. They liked New Mexico and settled in Santa Fe, where Rob worked in construction for a year and Karen did odd jobs, including working for the Santa Fe New Mexican.

“It was fun, and we spent all of our savings in Santa Fe, but I missed science and being outside part of the time,” Rob said.

He had a contact in the then-Agronomy Department at New Mexico State University, and in 1977 the couple headed south to Las Cruces. Bowman left NMSU in 1982 with a Ph.D. in soil chemistry.

However, he couldn’t find a suitable job in New Mexico and accepted a post with the USDA Agricultural Research Service office in Phoenix, tracking the movement of water and pesticides. The desert city was not to their liking.

Soon Fate came calling in the form of Dan Stephens, who asked Bowman if he would be interested in coming to New Mexico Tech, where Stephens was chair of the Geoscience Department (now called Earth and Environmental Science Department). In 1987 Bowman joined the department as a hydrologist.

“I feel lucky to be here,” he said. “There are few places in the country where one can work in a top-notch academic environment in such a great setting. It’s the best of both worlds. Our department is a wonderful place to work in, a very collegial environment,” said Bowman, in his third and final year as department chair.

“I’ve never been in another place where people take such pride in each other’s accomplishments – we like each other and many of us socialize outside work, and this cohesiveness is the strength of our department,” he said.

In recent years, Bowman’s work with zeolites has occupied half of his research, resulting in two patents with a third pending. “It’s been very satisfying to have an original idea take hold,” he said.

Zeolites are a naturally occurring and inexpensive mineral which can be used to target and remove specific water pollutants. Bowman got the idea of using zeolites about 15 years ago, when he heard about researchers using chemicals to modify clays to remove pollutants from water.

“It was one of those eureka! moments,” he said. “I thought that maybe I could modify zeolites, like these people did with clay. It’s a simple procedure to prepare the zeolites and they work really well.”

In 2006, Bowman was invited to host the International Natural Zeolite Association’s quadrennial conference, a weeklong event that brought 150 people to New Mexico Tech from 30 countries. The next conference will be in Bulgaria in 2010.

Meanwhile, Rob and Karen own a small farm in Lemitar, north of Socorro, home to horses, chickens, a couple of cats and a 1953 tractor Rob tinkers with on weekends. They also board horses in the summer on 15 acres of permanent pasture.

Their son, Danny Bowman, now 22, raised prize-winning chickens as a 4-H youngster; he’s now a senior geology major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

Rob and Karen still hike, camp and backpack, and love to travel together. Karen will join Rob for part of his five-week stay in Japan this summer as a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellow.

And, on a good day, that tractor just starts right up.

-- NMT --