Mayer Receives Distinguished Service Award
by Marcia Goodrich, senior writer
Faced with two extraordinary candidates, the University has selected two faculty members for the Distinguished Service Award. Professor Alex Mayer, who has a primary appointment in civil and environmental engineering and a secondary appointment in geological and mining engineering and sciences, receives the 2009 award. Janice Glime, professor emeritus of biological sciences, was honored for 2008, since no Distinguished Service Award was given last year. Each will receive a $2,500 prize.
Mayer was cited for forging collaborations that cross disciplinary boundaries, particularly in his quest to enhance teaching and research and to expand awareness of water-related issues.
"Because of Alex, the importance of water quality and quantity issues is apparent to hundreds of students, faculty and staff at Michigan Tech," wrote Kathleen Halvorsen, associate professor of social sciences, in nominating Mayer.
His projects range from a study of the local Huron Creek watershed to a $1 million National Science Foundation study of water as a material in the Great Lakes region. His international outreach has extended to Mexico, Cuba and Vietnam, and he has brought more Latino, Native American and female students to campus by appealing to their interest in water resources. One of his graduate students was chosen by the US State Department to meet with then-President George W. Bush because of his and Mayer's extraordinary efforts to solve water problems in northern Mexico.
"He is truly dedicated to raising awareness about problems of water quality and quantity in several regions throughout the world," wrote Agustin Robles Morua, a PhD student who came to Michigan Tech after graduating from the University of Sonora in Mexico. He credited Mayer for securing funding that allowed him to pursue a graduate degree here.
Hugh Gorman, an associate professor of environmental history and policy, called Mayer "the person most directly responsible for raising awareness of the Huron Creek watershed in the community and on campus. In the process, he has successfully mobilized all segments of the community . . . Many more people, including myself, now recognize the importance of preparing a plan that allows for development without wrecking the basic integrity of the stream."
"Furthermore, he has proceeded in a truly interdisciplinary way," Gorman said, in nominating Mayer.
David Watkins, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, also recognized Mayer's interdisciplinary efforts. "As founding director of the Center for Water and Society, Alex has successfully brought together students and faculty, including myself, from several diverse units to address complex water resources problems," he said.
Mayer said it's essential to involve people from other fields in water-quality work. "I learned in Mexico that the technical part is easy," he said. More than developing an engineering solution to a problem, it's important to understand what people want and what laws and rules govern what they do. "You can build a wonderful sewage treatment plant," he said, "but if the community's priorities are elsewhere, it won't be maintained."
Building those interdisciplinary coalitions can be challenging. "Pushing disciplines together is really hard," Mayer said. "You have to work to encourage people to respect each other."
In addition, collaborative work is not always fully recognized in the tenure and promotion process. "Doing interdisciplinary work is risky, but in talking with my colleagues at other universities, Michigan Tech has far fewer barriers," he said.
As for receiving the Distinguished Service Award, Mayer says, "It's embarrassing, especially because I see colleagues who work their butts off. But it's nice to have the recognition, to know that doing things differently, coloring outside the lines, is being recognized at Michigan Tech."