SOCORRO, N.M., June 11, 1999 -- Dr. Charles Chapin, Director of the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources (NMBMMR) and New Mexico's State Geologist is retiring, although it's hard to tell that by looking at his office.
"I told Tech President López I would stay on until a replacement is hired," says Chapin. The NMBMMR is part of New Mexico Tech, a state university specializing in science and engineering.
"As an emeritus researcher, I plan to be in Socorro several days a week, continuing to work with the Bureau staff," he says. "I've got a number of research projects I've never had a chance to finish. I've been working on the geologic history of the southern Rocky Mountains and the Rio Grande rift. I already have obligations: for instance, I will be a keynote speaker at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver in October. That's right after an October 1st deadline for a paper I'm writing. I have just given a lecture at Denver Museum of Natural History, and I conducted some research in the area while I was there.
"I enjoy geological field research, because I've always been interested in the outdoors," says Chapin. "Of course, you still have to spend time in the office compiling data and writing up the results of your research. I got interested in geology because, as a boy in western Washington, I was an avid mountain climber and backpacker. On one hiking trip, I met a man coming out of the wilderness. I still remember talking to him about what he had been doing. He was a geologist who had been examining old mines, and I recall thinking, 'This guy's getting paid to do this.' It seemed like a great job to me."
Chapin adds wryly, "I was outdoors a lot until the last eight years."
After his boyhood discovery of the joys of geology, Chapin proceeded to attend the Colorado School of Mines (CSM), where he got his bachelor's degree in mining geology in 1954 and his D.Sc. in 1965 in geology and chemistry. Chapin came to New Mexico Tech in 1965 as an assistant professor of geology. He went on to serve as the first chair of the newly formed Department of Geoscience (1968-1970), geologist and senior geologist with the Bureau (1970-1991), and finally, as director of the Bureau (1991 until the present).
[The New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources serves as the state's geological survey. The Bureau's 30-plus professional scientists and engineers study the state's geology; publish maps, papers, books, and newsletters; maintain collections of data on the state's geology and mineral resources; perform testing on geologic samples; answer questions from private industries and the public (such as, "What is this rock I found?"); and maintain a mineral museum which ranks among the best in the country. In recent years, they have done substantial work on water resources and geologic hazards (such as earthquakes, landslides, and land subsidence).
"The biggest challenge facing the Bureau is keeping up with technological advances," says Chapin. "In general, the Bureau is in very good shape. We have an excellent staff and our equipment is very modern. But technology moves so rapidly that keeping up with it is difficult. We process data and generate maps in ways we could only dream of a few years ago."
As an example, Chapin pointed to a new state-of-the-art map system called the Geographic Information System (or GIS) which the Bureau has developed in recent years. "GIS allows the user to create a map with multiple layers, showing geologic formations, oil wells, roads, water sources, and more, all of which can be manipulated in various ways to suit the project." he explains. The Bureau's digitized maps of oil and gas pools are now available on the Internet, off their homepage, http://geoinfo.nmt.edu/ . A user can click on a parcel of land and pull up data on oil production, wells, and much more. Bureau personnel, particularly Bureau assistant director and senior petroleum geologist Ron Broadhead and geological laboratory associate Adam Read, have worked with the Petroleum Recovery Research Center (PRRC), another division of New Mexico Tech, to make oil and gas data more accessible to independent producers.
"One of our goals is to get information out to users," continues Chapin, "and it became obvious in recent years that utilizing the Internet is essential. We've also taken advantage of student computer skills. One of the neat things about being at New Mexico Tech is that students acquire great computer skills."
Another modern lab the Bureau developed during Chapin's directorship was the Geochronology Research Lab, which uses isotopes of argon to measure ages of rocks and minerals. "This is a world-class geochronology lab that has been used to study ages of rock formations from all over the world," says Chapin. "Los Alamos National Laboratory provided seed money to construct the lab, former Tech president Laurence Lattman provided university funds and the National Science Foundation provided the rest.
"This lab is important because, not only can we date rocks that are only a few thousand years old -- it used to be you couldn't do that -- but we can also tell how good the number is." The lab is run by the two full-time geochronologists on the Bureau staff -- Dr. William McIntosh and Dr. Matt Heizler. In addition, laboratory fees support two full-time lab technicians. Space is provided by the Earth and Environmental Science Department, and the lab has been an important factor in attracting some good graduate students to Tech.
"The Geochronology Research Lab has been used to solve problems like measuring the age of volcanic centers near Yucca Mountain in Nevada," Chapin adds. "This is a site that the government has proposed to use as a nuclear repository, so determining its geologic stability is very important. The lab was also used to determine the age of Carlsbad Caverns. The Caverns turn out to be only about four million years old, which is very young in geologic terms. This resulted in a paper by Bill McIntosh and others that appeared in Science last fall."
Chapin continues, "One of the newer labs we've developed is an electron microprobe lab. An electron probe allows you to analyze small spots on a sample and determine their chemical composition. Dr. Nelia Dunbar of the Bureau is the principal investigator who runs the lab. She also teaches a course on electron microprobe analysis to both Tech students and faculty. This is a great example of collaboration among departments: the electron probe is used a lot by the Materials Engineering Department and the Earth and Environmental Science Department."
Chapin doesn't plan to spend his retirement resting on his laurels, although he has accumulated a number of them: New Mexico Tech's Distinguished Research Award (1988), Colorado School of Mines' Distinguished Achievement Award (1999), and CSM's Van Diest Gold Medal for research (1980). He served as a Distinguished Lecturer for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 1985-86.
He keeps an active schedule, commuting weekly between Socorro and Albuquerque and keeping in touch with a busy family.
"My wife Carol works in Albuquerque as a grief counselor at the Office of the Medical Investigator. My oldest son, Giles, is Senior Chief Petty Officer on a nuclear submarine, running the communication system. My other son John is a medical doctor, a neurologist, in Wichita Falls, Texas. My daughter Laura works for Allstate Insurance in Fort Worth."
Reflecting on his 34 years at New Mexico Tech, Dr. Chapin said with obvious satisfaction, "It's been good! I have seen Tech grow from a very small school with limited facilities to a strong and diverse Institute with high-tech equipment and an outstanding faculty and staff. One constant through the years has been the high quality of Tech's student body. I directed nearly 40 theses and dissertations, sat on innumerable graduate research committees, and taught courses for 26 years. Among my fondest memories are the students and the many fine researchers it has been my privilege to work with. The students have gone on to successful careers in industry or academia; some are now vice presidents of corporations, and others are well-known researchers and professors. Nothing satisfies a professor more than the success of his students."