UM geology alumnus Tom Varner receives grant to study arsenic in Meghna River
The drinking water along the Meghna River in Bangladesh is tainted with arsenic, a toxic chemical that when ingested may lead to cancer, vascular disease and other health ailments. But one day soon, those waters could become safer to drink – thanks to the research of a University of Mississippi geology alumnus.
Thomas (Tom) Varner (BSG 19) is an environmental science and engineering Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The South Bend, Indiana, native was recently awarded a Graduate Research Grant from the Geological Society of America. Varner’s grant will assist the geological engineering department’s existing National Science Foundation-funded research, which examines the mechanisms that control the release and sequestration of arsenic along the Meghna River in Bangladesh. “Millions of people in Bangladesh are afflicted with arsenic-contaminated drinking water derived from the groundwater,” Varner said. “Surface waters have become contaminated with pathogens due to dense populations and lack of sanitation practices. With no safe alternatives for drinking water, this research will further the understanding of the processes controlling the fate and transport of arsenic, which is imperative to providing possible solutions.”
Varner said that the GSA grant is confirmation that his research has a societal and academic significance outside the laboratory. “This award was an honor to receive, but it represents a promise to adequately complete the study to benefit the academic community and those who suffer from inadequate drinking water,” he said.
Discovering His Passion
Varner’s interest in geology was born while hiking in Spain in 2015. There he realized that his passions for science and the natural environment could be merged through the study of geology. He changed his major from pharmacy to geology when he returned to Ole Miss. “Geology is a fascinating field involving the study of some of society’s most pressing issues,” Varner said. “As the human population grows, there is an increased strain on our relationship with the natural environment. “Problems such as climate change, energy, mineral resources and water resources are all addressed through the study of geology. The application of the study of geology towards real-world issues provides a fulfilling line of work.”
Mining His Niche
As an undergraduate, Varner’s favorite engineering professors were Jennifer Gifford, assistant professor of geology and geological engineering; and Gregg Davidson, chair and professor of geology and geological engineering.
Varner and Gifford studied zircons (extremely durable heavy minerals often found as detrital grains in sedimentary rocks) to determine the Mississippi River’s age and tectonic environment of origin. The project, funded by an internal UM Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Track 1 grant, used detrital zircon age patterns as a tracer of sediment source. “During this time, Dr. Gifford encouraged me to attend conferences to present my research and assisted in the processes of writing an internal grant to help fund the research. Both are crucial components of conducting research studies,” Varner said. “I am extremely grateful for the opportunities and experience I gained by conducting undergraduate research under Dr. Gifford.”
Gifford remembered Varner’s zeal for their research. “Tom was very dedicated,” she said. “He worked very well in the field and in the lab.”
Moving toward the Mark
Other honors and awards Varner received as an Ole Miss student included Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges, and Outstanding Senior in Geology, both in 2018. He also was named Outstanding Junior in Geology the previous year. “Receiving the UM Undergraduate Summer Research Grant was monumental for my decision to continue with research,” Varner said. “Writing, and receiving, grants is an invaluable skill to have as a graduate student and as a researcher. Receiving this grant award as an undergraduate provided me with instrumental writing experience and confidence to pursue a graduate degree.”
Receiving the Who’s Who award proved to Varner that there was merit in the extra work that he took on. “Receiving this award provided me with inspiration to pursue further education and helped develop my passion for geology, specifically the association between geology and human health,” he said.
After completing the Ph.D. program, Varner plans to pursue a career involving the management and protection of water resources. “Water is required to sustain life and is a basic human right,” Varner said. “I would love to be in a position where I would be able to work towards providing clean and reliable drinking water for afflicted communities.”
Acknowledging His Ole Miss Engineering Experience
Varner said the education and research opportunities he received as an undergraduate in the School of Engineering at Ole Miss provided him with invaluable experience that has proved essential for his current research at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“The foundation of knowledge that I received through the courses in the School of Engineering has provided me with the components necessary for further education and research,” he said.
“I am very grateful for the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate while at Ole Miss. The ability to conduct research as an undergraduate set the stage for my future, allowing me to apply the knowledge from courses to help answer research questions in the field of geology.”
From D.C. to Hawaii and Back: Geological engineering alumnus Gage Johnson consults on major, varied construction projects
From a naval command center to the Cannon House Office Building, Gage Johnson (BSGE 17) has literally come full circle in his career path. “My current title is ‘consultant,’” the Chattanooga, Tennessee, native said. “I have worked on a plethora of jobs within the past two years of working for McDonough Bolyard Peck Inc. (a construction firm headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia). No two projects are alike.”
Johnson has been an Americans with Disabilities Act compliance inspector on many apartments under construction and served as construction/project manager on the installation of a new HVAC system on a middle school and an elementary school in D.C. In December 2019, he moved almost 5,000 miles away to Honolulu, Hawaii, to work as the risk and change manager for an MBP client, the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific. “I assisted the efforts in building a new $10 billion Marine base on Guam,” Johnson said. “For seven months, I lived in Waikiki and worked on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. While working on this project, I was able to visit Camp Blaz, Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam, located in Guam.” Upon Johnson’s return to D.C., he assisted with the renovation of many of the national parks being renovated under the $9.5 billion Great American Outdoors Act. He works as the project control engineer under the Architect of the Capitol, in efforts to renovate the Cannon House of Representatives Office Building.
Coming to Ole Miss
Johnson was one of three students in his high school graduating class to attend the University of Mississippi. “My reason for attending was to experience something new, as well as to attend the engineering school,” he said. “I knew I wanted to go farther west and explore more of what this country has to offer, but not be too far from home. Mississippi was just far enough.” From his senior year of high school, Johnson knew he wanted to go into engineering. However, he did not know which branch. “At first, I wanted to go into chemical engineering. Then I found out about the geological engineering program, and I was immediately sold,” he said. Gregg Davidson, chair and professor of geology and geological engineering, said Johnson impressed him as “outgoing.” “I recall Gage as one of those rare incoming freshmen with the maturity and confidence to drop by my office to personally introduce themselves,” he said. “Gage had some professional and personal interests similar to my own, and took the time to let me know.”
Johnson vividly recalled his first day of class at the university. “It is day one, 8 a.m.,” he said. “I walk into an unknown building, later to be remembered as Shoemaker Hall, with 100 unknown people. Everyone could hear the music blaring from the classroom before we even entered: ‘Volcano’ by Jimmy Buffett.” Immediately, Johnson saw instructor Cathy Grace dancing and singing along. The image of her dancing led him to make a connection that endured throughout his entire four years at Ole Miss. “Colleen Bransford, Bryan Brick, Liz Vitale and I would always go to Cathy’s office to chat during our free time,” he said. “Furthermore, every year, we would sign up to be volunteers on the Geology 103 trip to Tishomingo State Park, which Cathy led.”
One of Johnson’s favorite courses was Petroleum Geology, a special topic class taught by Walter Guidroz. He remembered the course as “extremely absorbing” because it gave real-life examples and insider knowledge of the oil industry. “Having worked for Amoco and BP for 40-plus years, Dr. Guidroz gave real, hands-on lessons that made concepts easy to grasp,” he said. “Dr. Guidroz also had the experience of being the interviewer for a copious number of positions at BP. Naturally, we had mock interviews. Not only did we get to practice interviewing for jobs, we actually received positive and constructive feedback on our resumes and on our responses to questions asked.” Johnson said he also enjoyed senior classes taught by UM geology and geological engineering faculty members Robert Holt and Andrew O’Reilly. “Senior design was definitely the most rigorous course I took during my time but also one of the most enjoyable,” he said. “Forming teams and designing a nuclear waste facility, U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, which was 2,000 feet underground and about the size of a football field and contained ceilings 10-15 feet tall, was the most interesting project I had ever completed during my time at Ole Miss.”
During the spring semester, the entire class boarded two charter buses and made the long haul to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where they camped out at a KOA for a week. “During our time in the desert, we performed our own preliminary work (i.e., topographical mapping, WIPP site tour, etc.),” Johnson said. “We were actually able to see, to walk on, to kick the dirt of the exact place where our facility was going to be built – theoretically, of course. That was the most significant and memorable week of my four years.”
Sharing the Knowledge
Of all the activities and organizations in which Johnson was involved, his favorite was being a teaching assistant during his junior and senior years. He was a TA for the geographic information system, geomorphology and environmental geology labs. “I thoroughly enjoyed being a TA because I was able to meet and build relationships with students who (became) my friends, even to this day,” Johnson said. “Also, assisting with these labs reinforced my knowledge, and I was able to apply that knowledge to more advanced classes. Being a TA also gave me the responsibility and luxury of having a job and not having to leave campus, or even the building.”
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
Johnson praises the Ole Miss School of Engineering and its staff for having been extremely beneficial to him in his career path. “(They did this) by providing real-life, hands-on experiences that go beyond textbooks, by structuring the advanced courses as project-based instead, by teaching the more difficult/tedious way of learning,” Johnson said.
Johnson is especially complimentary of the geological engineering department community. “I did not just see these people in class or when we studied,” he said. “We were more than just ‘classmates.’ Many students outside the GE department often referred to us as a ‘clique’ or, in its loosest term, a ‘cult.’ We went to football games together. We traveled together. We went to the Square together. Some were roommates together. We are still friends with each other. And some are actually marrying each other.”
August 2016 – Bachelor of Science in Geological Engineering
Underground Storage Tank Technical Project Manager – Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Jackson, MS
Cool stuff I get to do:
Recently, I visited a gas station that had soil and groundwater contamination on its property. After two in-depth assessments, contamination was discovered across the street from the gas station. As a result, a Dual Phase Vacuum Extraction (DPVE) system, recovery vaults, and piping needed to be installed to remediate the site. The main remedial objectives are free product removal, soil vapor extraction, and contaminated groundwater removal. Instead of digging a trench across Main Street, to place the underground piping, the contractors chose to use a Ditch Witch to drill a 16” diameter underground bore. The picture on the right shows two pieces of piping being “welded” together by using a 400°F metal plate heated both ends. Once the piping cooled, it was attached to the end of the Ditch Witch and pulled underground.
Value of a degree from Ole Miss:
My degree from Ole Miss has been invaluable for my career. With each class, my professors prepared me for the technical analysis and risk assessment of soil and groundwater contamination. My background in Geology and Engineering has provided endless possibilities for my future; and for that, I am grateful for my time at Ole Miss!
2006 – B.S. Geological Engineering; 2008 – M.S. Geological Engineering (hydro)
US Army Corps of Engineers (2008 – present)
Cool stuff I get to do:
Since starting with the US Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District in 2008, I have had the privilege of working on some of the nation’s most critical infrastructure. In my career with USACE I have had the opportunity to work on deep foundation dam remediations, design stream bank protection, design/build automated dam safety monitoring systems, and participate in risk assessments across the country.
The most fun I have had in my career is designing and installing automated monitoring systems at some of the biggest Dam Safety Remediation Projects in the world. This work has enabled me to bridge my love of all things tech and gadgets with my Geological Engineering background. Being able to design systems for projects such as Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky, East Branch Dam in Pennsylvania, and most recently the Mosul Dam Project in Northern Iraq, has allowed me to work and learn alongside some of the industry’s best.
Value of a degree from Ole Miss:
The value of my degrees from Ole Miss is not just in the academic preparation to enter the workforce able to hit the ground running, but also the ability to foster meaningful professional relationships.
First Degree (Millsaps College): Bachelor of Science in Geology – 1968
Second Degree (Ole Miss): Master of Science in Geology 1970
Third Degree (Case Western Reserve University): Ph.D. in Geology – 1974
First Job: Research Geologist, Atlantic Richfield Corporation (ARCO), Dallas, TX
Current Job: President, RockFluid Systems, Inc., McKinney, TX
Cool stuff I get to do:
Being a geologist has not only provided me with a good living, it opened the world to me. I have visited all seven continents, most recently having completed a “bucket list” trip to Antarctica. I have worked in countries I would never have even visited were I not a geologist (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Iran). Best of all, I looked forward to going to work every day! Someone once said, “Do what you love, and you will never have to work.” For me that was geology.
I love being outside, studying rocks in the field and trying to imagine how they were deposited. I’ve studied ancient glacial deposits in Oman, deep-sea turbidites in the Aleutians, volcanic rocks in Newfoundland, modern and ancient desert deposits in Saudi Arabia.
I also love looking at rocks under the microscope- whether it be an optical petrographic microscope or a scanning electron microscope. The details of rocks can tell us their history- their origin, the pressures and temperatures they have experienced, and their potential to produce oil and gas.
Value of a degree from Ole Miss:
I attended Ole Miss in the early 1970s, a time when plate tectonics was still hotly debated. A young professor in the department, Dr. Velon Minshew, managed to get Dr. J. Tuzo Wilson, a famous advocate of plate tectonics, to visit the department at Ole Miss. Dr. Wilson was in great demand for speaking engagements at the time, so this was a big deal for us students and the department! His presentations inspired us! He even hung out with us students and had a few beers!
Dr. Minshew’s Ph.D. was from Ohio State’s Polar Research Institute. His field area was Antarctica. He brought such enthusiasm and excitement to the classroom! He further encouraged my love for petrography by using his collection of Antarctic samples in our petrography classe. The volcanic and sedimentary rocks from such an exotic location fascinated me.
Dr. Bill Reynolds was also new to the department. A clay mineralogist interested in the origin of the enigmatic Tallahatta Formation of Mississippi and Alabama, he ultimately became my thesis advisor. He and Dr. Minshew spent time with me in the field, helping me to understand field relations and asking me probing questions. There is no question that the time they spent with me was instrumental in my desire to continue my geological education and pursue a Ph.D. Everything that followed would not have been possible except for them and my time at Ole Miss.
First Degree (Ole Miss): Bachelor of Science in Geological Engineering – May 2005
Second Degree (Ole Miss): Master of Science in Engineering Science – Geological Engineering – May 2008
First Job: 2006 – Client Representative / GIS Specialist / Marine Geoscientist – AOA Geophysics – India
Current Job: Senior Vice President – MAG Aerospace – Huntsville, AL
Cool stuff I get to do:
While my career has slowly changed from being focused solely on oil and gas exploration to now focusing on defense, aviation and aerospace, the best part has been the continued travel and ability to see and experience the world. I have traveled to nearly 50 countries, 6 continents and visited 6 of the Seven Wonders of the World, with the intent to visit my last continent, Australia, and the Great Wall of China, my last of the Seven Wonders of the World, this summer. Each place and each program/project has been unique, whether it was working on a 300′ ship in the middle of the Bay of Bengal mapping the ocean floor or using commercial satellite and airborne hyperspectral data to support counter-narcoterrorism efforts in Latin America. Experiencing the development and implementation of cutting edge technology like UAS platforms and the sensors they use to provide security for US Forces or simply to provide low-cost alternatives to environmental mapping, the possibilities are endless for applicability from a background in Geology and Geological Engineering.
The ability to continue the drive to learn new things from difficult systems engineering projects is paramount to the success in many of these fields. Always learning from people who specialize in one thing will allow you to better yourself and identify the best career progression, whether it is into management or to continue to refine and become a subject matter expert in a particular area of interest. The people that I have met in the past and the people that I work with on a day-to-day basis really are one of the most enjoyable parts of my job because of our common goals and a truly team-focused approach.
Value of a degree from Ole Miss:
The experiences that I gained from being in the Geological Engineering program at Ole Miss, were paramount to my success. I gained knowledge in a broad background of topics while in the program, which eventually allowed me to focus on GIS and Remote Sensing. That catapulted me into the oil and gas exploration world and then continued on to working on data analytics for the US Government in ways never imagined.
First Degree (Ole Miss): BS in Geological Engineering – December 2001
Second Degree (University of Rhode Island): MS in Ocean Engineering – August 2004
First Job: 2004 – Marine Technician – Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, onboard the R/V JOIDES Resolution – Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
Current Job: Director of the International Hydrographic Organization Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – Boulder, CO
Cool stuff I get to do:
After falling in love with marine geology in my senior year at Ole Miss and finishing a master’s degree at the University of Rhode Island, I spent the rest of my 20’s hopping from boat to boat drilling and mapping the seafloor around the mid-Atlantic Ridge, India, Indonesia, Kenya and a handful of other random locations. Other than the occasional bouts of sea sickness and the nasty malaria medication I often had to take, it was a blast. On every survey I realized more and more how little we know about our seafloor, and therefore our planet.
When I hit the big 3-0, I thought it was time to settle down on dry land and found myself as far away from the ocean as one could get: Colorado. Working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave me the best of both worlds: it allowed be to keep my hands wet with occasional surveying opportunities (eg: Arctic Ocean), but allowed me to start focusing on the actual data, and how we could best make it available to the public.
Ten years later, as the Director of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry (which we host at NOAA), I am actively involved with improving data sharing practices in a variety of national and international seafloor mapping projects. Every day I find myself working with governments (our own and others), researchers, academia, and everyday mariners; sharing with them the best way to turn their data into something that benefits mankind. My focus now is Seabed 2030, a global initiative to cooperatively create a high resolution complete map of the world’s ocean floor by 2030. This is no small endeavor when you consider less than 15% of our seafloor has actually been directly mapped. It’s a challenge I’m excited to help take on over the next decade.
Value of a degree from Ole Miss:
I can honestly say my 4.5 years at Ole Miss laid a solid groundwork enabling future success in my career. It provided the foundational knowledge necessary for graduate school and through the support of caring and invested professors, opened numerous doors (internships, graduate school, connections) and provided the confidence I needed to take my next steps.