Almost 200 years ago, Jules Verne wrote one of science fiction’s most well-known stories, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Today, University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) alumnus Michael Walter is leading new research to uncover the secrets of the Earth’s deep mantle and core.
At the beginning of April, Walter took over as director of the Geophysical Laboratory in Washington D.C. The lab, which was founded in 1905, is one of six unique science labs overseen by the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Geophysical Laboratory is the only one focused on studying the physics and chemistry of deep planetary interiors.
Prior to his new role, Walter was a professor and head of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.
“If you want to study the cosmos, you have a big telescope and you can look up and see stars that are far away and you can develop theories about how they formed,” he explains. “But if you want to know about the Earth's deep interior you can't do that.”
Walter has spent the last 30 years studying how rocks form and how the extreme conditions in the deep-earth, including high temperatures and high amounts of pressures, helped shape the Earth as we know it today. However, back in the early 1980s, Walter, an Omaha-native, had no intention of becoming one of the world’s foremost earth scientists; in fact, he was just trying to make a living.
“I graduated high school in Papillion and wasn't planning to go to university, actually, so I worked for three years a whole range of different jobs, the last of which involved working for an oil company and that's kind of what got me interested in geology. I was thinking that I don't know anything; I don't have a future with an oil company unless I go to university so that's why I came to UNO."
While at UNO, Walter joined his fellow “non-traditional” classmates by taking classes whenever they could fit them in to their otherwise busy lives. It is a feat that wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of UNO professors at the time. Four that Walter remembers distinctly are professor emeritus Jack Schroder and the late Steve White, as well as current faculty members George Engelmann and Harmon Maher.
"Some of my fondest recollections were that a lot of us in the department in those days were slightly older and a lot of us had jobs during the day so we would often spend evenings working together as a group and invariably there was a professor up there with us and that was fantastic,” Walter says. “They'd be working with us until 10 or 11 o’ clock at night.”
Maher, who joined UNO in 1983 with specializations in structural geology and geologic mapping also remembers Walter fondly.
“The one impression, the one thing that I think characterizes him is a certain intellectual fearlessness. Something comes up that intrigues him and he'll just pursue it out of pure interest rather than saying it's too complicated.”
One thing that Maher remembers in particular is that Walter came in to the program at a time when computers were not as easily accessible or ubiquitous as they are today; however, that did not stop him from utilizing new technologies to achieve his research goals.
“It's hard for people to appreciate, particularly in the sciences, what has happened in the last several decades and Mike really speaks to this well. We were just starting to use computers and other technology in any serious fashion and of course now we live and breathe both. They just fantastically expand the kind of work we do.”
Walter has carried that groundbreaking spirit and drive to his current work as a petrologist in trying to replicate the conditions that exist deep in the earth. In order to mimic the amount of pressure that exists at certain depths, scientists have to get creative – including using the hardness of diamonds to apply pressure at a single point on a specimen while also applying lasers on the same spot in order to replicate the high temperatures experienced near the Earth’s core. Because the area of where the pressure and heat is converging ends up being so small, data can only be measured through high-precision x-rays.
It is this level of high-tech research that Walter hopes to continue at the Carnegie Geophysical Laboratory and the team he will be working with.
“It’s a fantastic place to be for my type of research so I'm very excited to be there both to be there from the standpoint of a research scientist but being able to influence and lead scientific direction for the Geophysical Laboratory for the future.”
Through all of his experiences and adventures, taking him from Omaha to graduate school in Texas; post-doctoral research in Alberta, Canada; a lab position in Japan; to a professorship in Bristol; and now back to the United States in Washington, D.C., Walter has continued to stay in touch with his faculty mentors from UNO and even visit the campus when he is in town.
“We have a professional development seminar and one of the things we do is bring back alums to talk with our current majors and he was coming back for some other reason and we lassoed him in,” Maher says. “He gave a really brilliant talk to them so they can not only hear from us, who they expect to say great things about their future options in geology but it's much more telling if it comes from someone who has lived it beyond the university.”
While the future certainly continues to look bright for Walter, he says it all started as a non-traditional student taking classes at UNO.
“I probably wasn't the most confidant [student] at the beginning, but by the time I graduated, the personal relationships with the professors were really important to build that confidence up. Especially Harmon; he was really a key person in giving me the confidence to go to graduate school. And it was really from that point on, when I went to graduate school, that everything developed from there. But had I not had the confidence to do it, then who knows where I would have ended up. I totally put that down to the relationships with the professors at UNO.”