Thomas Mack ‘80 Takes Hartwick Geology Lessons to Afghanistan

November 3, 2009

Thomas Mack '80 has seen some of the most important decisions in his career come about as the result of mistakes and challenges. Today, he is a hydrologist working with the United States Geological Survey to help the people of Afghanistan develop clean water resources that will last them long into the future, but in the late 1970s, he was a young Hartwick student struggling to adapt to the academic rigors on Oyaron Hill.

"While in high school I visited a high school friend at Hartwick who was a year ahead of me," he explained. "I had a great time and put Hartwick on my list. I was looking for a college with a pre-med program and did not want to get 'lost' in a big school; I liked the size of Hartwick."

Mack enrolled Pre-Med, but didn't last long in the program.

"The honest answer is that after failing a first-term freshman biology course, I could not take the next biology course. My Pre-Med plan was suddenly thrown off track!" he said. "I wanted to study science and needed a different science class for my second term. My roommate Radar (he came by the nickname for his resemblance to the MASH character, popular at the time) said he liked the geology class he took in the fall and suggested that I try it. I signed up and was hooked. "

He connected quickly with the inspirational faculty he found within the Geology Department.

"David 'Hutch' Hutchison, my advisor, and Bob Titus--or just "Titus" as we called him--both had a lasting impact on me," he said. "I found their geology classes to be very interesting, which certainly helped motivate me academically. The small size of the Geology Department also was a positive factor for me and allowed for great interaction. I don't think I would have gotten that level of interaction at a large school.

"Even with a slow start, Hutch and Titus were very encouraging," Mack continued. "My studies turned around and I finished up well. I felt that both professors were interested in the professional development of the geology students and provided helpful input on our career directions."

Outside of academics, Mack cleared other hurdles, specifically athletics. Growing up as a surfer on Long Island, he thought he knew all there was to know about swimming, and was quick to sign up for Hartwick's first intercollegiate swimming team, coached by George Mitchell and Kathy King.

"I saw a flier and tried out, and the other swimmers blew me away," he recalled. "I was the slowest person on the team, but it was the first year of the team and Coaches Mitchell and King encouraged me to continue. By my second year, I was occasionally placing at meets and by my forth year I had improved considerably. Having never been involved in a team sport I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the friends I met."

After graduation, Mack enrolled at UNH to undertake his graduate studies. Upon completion, he overcame yet another obstacle on his path to career success.

There weren't many jobs in hydrology at the time, he said, so Mack spent a year hunting for work along the Eastern Seaboard, living in a small sailboat throughout the process. He finally found an opening with the USGS on Long Island.

"My first project involved measuring groundwater levels for water supply studies on the east end of Long Island. I was working in places like Shelter Island, Southampton, and Montauk and loved it," he said. "After two years I wanted to transfer to California but took a detour to work on a project mapping groundwater in New Hampshire. I've been in New Hampshire about 25 years now.

"Since then I've been involved in many projects that bring together the sciences I studied at Hartwick and in grad school," he continued. "USGS provided lots of opportunity for additional training and I've been able to apply many cutting-edge technologies to water resource issues. The techniques I work with include specialties such as geophysics, geochemistry, and computer simulation of groundwater flow and potential climate change effects."

He is now a member of the USGS team helping to train Afghan geologists, making several trips to the country recently.

"We are evaluating the country's water resources to help with reconstruction efforts and to plan for future water needs," he explained. "The engineers that I work with are very welcoming and are eager to learn. With more than 20 years of war, they lack many basic skills so we generally have to start at square one. The work is challenging, due to security issues and rugged terrain, and will require more training and working alongside Afghan engineers to help them with the problems that they face.

"In addition to returning refugees, who have strained limited resources in urban areas, much of the country has suffered from multi-year droughts," Mack said. "There are water-supply issues and, due to a lack of water infrastructure, water-quality issues. The hope is that by helping Afghans to find secure water resources--by that I mean clean and sustainable water resources--we can help them prosper in other areas of their lives."

Mack credits those he met at Hartwick, and the experiences his time here provided, with setting the stage for success.

"I enjoy my work as a hydrologist," he said. "I owe a good part of my inspiration to Hutch and Titus, and swimming also remains a big part of my life."

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Hartwick College is a private liberal arts and sciences college of 1,480 students, located in Oneonta, NY in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Hartwick's expansive Liberal Arts in Practice curriculum merges traditional liberal arts study, personalized teaching, and experiential learning approaches to emphasize Connecting the Classroom to the World. Add to that a wide range of off-campus internships, collaborative research, study-abroad opportunities, and a unique January Term, and Hartwick prepares students for the world ahead. Strong financial aid and scholarship programs keep a Hartwick education affordable.

Contact: Christopher Lott
Phone: 607-431-4030