During the Cold War era, the sight and sound of massive test explosions detonated at Suffield, Alta., likely inspired fear and dread in the average person.
Dr. Douglas Schmitt (BSc '80), however, professor of geophysics and physics at the University of Alberta and the University of Lethbridge's 2008 Distinguished Alumnus of the year award winner, is anything but average.
For Schmitt, who was five years old at the time, the explosions proved very intriguing. "My mom told me it was the scientists who blew things up; so from then on I wanted to be a scientist," explains Schmitt.
That love of science would continue and after graduating from Erle Rivers High School (Milk River), Schmitt entered the University of Lethbridge where he earned a bachelor of science in physics in 1980.
"The U of L was a really good place for me to go to school at that time in my life," remembers Schmitt. "I was in the physics program which was really small at the time. The professors were great. They were accessible, not condescending; we had no fear of talking to them. They treated us like colleagues and gave us the background to keep learning."
Schmitt lived in residence during his four years at the University and developed many lasting friendships and fond memories. He was active in the Residence Students' Association and served as both a floor rep and treasurer.
"We ran the pop machines, washers and dryers. We had a lot of fun activities. I worked with a good group of people," says Schmitt. In his last year at the U of L, Schmitt was undecided about what to do with the rest of his life. Fortune then smiled upon him.
"I was walking down University Hall when I ran into one of the former lab instructors, Dave Hemmings. He asked if I wanted a job and I said, "Sure." I interviewed and got a job at Texaco in geophysics," explains Schmitt. "Before I got the job, I didn't know anything about geophysics so, in a sense, a chance encounter at the U of L set the course of my life and I am glad it happened."
Schmitt returned to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology and earned a PhD in geophysics in 1987. Following his post-doctoral research at Stanford University in California, he began his current career at the University of Alberta in 1989. He is a popular professor who inspires students to always continue learning.
"I think the best way to teach students is to give them the tools and skills to keep growing and learning, to teach them not to be afraid to get their hands dirty and to keep their minds open," says Schmitt.
An interactive professor, each year Schmitt takes his fourth year geophysics students to Doug's Geophysics Field School (near his family farm east of Milk River), giving them the opportunity to perform a variety of geophysical experiments and gather data they will work with for the rest of the semester.
As a Tier I Canada Research Chair, Schmitt also leads a team of highly skilled field and laboratory researchers. Their world-renowned research yields valuable information with important implications for better management of hydrocarbon production in the oil industry, the search for new mineral and water resources, the safe geological sequestration of greenhouse gases and the safety of mine workers worldwide.
It all fits into his philosophy of continued learning and growth as he continues to work on numerous projects, including a major venture he is currently spearheading that involves scientific drilling into the deep permafrost of Canada's Arctic regions.
Those explosions in the 1960's? They were in large part geophysics experiments, as Schmitt found out only after he was a professor at the U of A.