Geophysics Alumnus Endows Faculty Chair
By Albert Raboteau
When John Costain helped put Virginia Tech on the map in geophysics in 1967 by relocating from the University of Utah, a graduate student named David Worthington followed him to Blacksburg.
After finishing his master's dissertation in 1968, Worthington went on to a distinguished career with Shell Oil before heading his own geophysical exploration company. He credits Costain with being "instrumental in setting my course."
In recognition of that, Worthington and his wife Beverly endowed a scholarship fund in Costain's name several years ago. And they recently donated more than $1.6 million to endow the John K. Costain Faculty Chair in Geophysics.
David and Beverly Worthington
Geophysicists use advanced mathematics to analyze seismic data. By doing so they can make highly accurate predictions of what lies deep within the earth, even offshore.
Oil and natural gas companies rely heavily on geophysics to decide where to drill. Costain was a pioneer in using computers to analyze large amounts of seismic data. He stopped teaching in 1998 but continues to publish research papers, and said he was "overjoyed" to learn a chair's position was endowed in his name.
"My feeling is that it's the highest honor that can be bestowed on a faculty member," Costain said. "This is only the third one [named chair position] in the College of Science. You can't help but be pleased that one of your former students did this for you."
With the endowment, Worthington not only honored his former professor, he provided his alma mater a valuable tool to use to recruit a new, senior-level faculty member. Persuading established faculty to leave one institution for another is hard, but a named chair position can go a long way in doing just that, said University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences Michael Hochella.
"Everyone in the academic world knows that a chair position is reserved for not just any professor, but a really outstanding one," he said.
Hochella, who headed the committee that planned last year's 100th anniversary celebrations for the geosciences department, said the new endowed chair position comes at a particularly exciting time for that department. Over the past couple years the department has added new faculty members, and an anonymous donor recently made a more than $10 million commitment to encourage the creation of a new geosciences building.
Looking back at the last 100-or-so years of geosciences at Virginia Tech shows three great periods of growth and activity, Hochella said. The first, he said, was when the department was founded. The second, he said, was in the late 1960s when Byron Cooper, chair of the department at the time, recruited several renowned geophysicists, including Costain, to create a program in that discipline. The department also added several other outstanding geoscientists during this period.
"The third period of great accomplishment and achievement is right now," Hochella said. "Hopefully history will show that this time, early in the 21st century, is when we moved from a top 20 to a top 10 program. I really believe that this can happen if we can keep our focus and work together."
In higher education, private support, whether from corporations or philanthropists, often provides elite institutions with an additional advantage to pull away from the competition.
With that in mind, Virginia Tech is in the midst of its most ambitious fundraising drive ever. One of the top priorities of the $1 billion Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future, is promoting academic excellence at the university.
Donors like the Worthingtons allow the university to use endowed positions to lure the best faculty and new scholarships to lure the best students. In addition to the graduate student scholarship they endowed in Costain's name, the Worthingtons have set up another scholarship administered by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists to support students studying at Virginia Tech.
When asked what young people entering the field need to know in order to succeed, David Worthington stressed the importance of communication skills as well as technical ones. He also encouraged young people who study geophysics to work within their discipline, even though industry's demand for people with highly advanced math skills exceeds supply to such a degree that a variety of opportunities might be available for people with geophysics degrees.