At Home in the Field and in the Office Bob Smith is Making a Difference
What do a profound curiosity about the world around us, higher education in modern times and sustainable clean energy have in common?
All of these things are interrelated passions that motivate Dr. Robert Smith. Dr. Smith, better known as Bob, serves a dual role. He is the University of Idaho’s Vice President in Idaho Falls and an Associate Director at the newly opened Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) also in Idaho Falls.
An individual of obvious great acumen, Smith holds a PHD in Geosciences from New Mexico Tech. He credits his curiosity about the world to his family. “My grandparents had a commitment to understand what was going on in the world around them, and they passed that on to me.”
During an early expedition as a student of the world at a geology field camp, after a severe sunburn Smith realized, “If I was going to dig for rocks, it was going to have to be underground as a mining geologist. I sunburn easily and I still remember the pain and bleeding after the first week of that camp.”
His interest in the world both above and below ground gave impetus to his research during his employment at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and now at the University of Idaho. During the 20 years that he has lived in Idaho, he has studied groundwater contamination issues and how science and technology can be utilized to deal with past practices that led to the contamination. He is now applying this understanding to approaches for the long-term storage of carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels.
“My study of the chemical processes in geology led me to an understanding of the incredible role that biology plays in the geology near the earth’s surface. The fact that biological processes are crucial to geology just below the earth’s surface is becoming more and more evident. Living organisms have a profound influence on the physical world and vice versa.”
Smith’s initial role at the University of Idaho was as Distinguished Professor of Subsurface Science. He moved from his faculty position to a management position in 2005. To appreciate the connection between higher education and clean energy, one needs to first realize the role that higher education plays in modern times.
“We live in a very complex society. Many of the state’s, nation’s and world’s jobs require an understanding of technical issues.”
Smith can clearly and enthusiastically articulate what he sees as a three-fold role for higher education. He asserts that one of the roles is educating citizens so that they can participate in their own economic well-being and enrichment. The second role of land-grant institutions such as the University of Idaho, the state’s flagship university, is state and regional economic development. University conducted research leads to the commercialization of concepts and expansion of existing or the attraction of new companies to the state. Smith’s involvement in Grow Idaho Falls reflects the University’s commitment to regional economic development. The third and perhaps the most important role of higher education is to help prepare citizens for their civic responsibilities. “We live in a society of participatory government and for it to succeed; the population needs to be capable of the critical thinking required for successful self-government.”
The Center for Advanced Energy Studies research programs which are under Smith’s leadership, are in and of themselves an economic undertaking. The partnership with the other state universities and the INL makes all the partners more successful in meeting their missions which brings new revenues into the state. The CAES mission in part is to “deliver innovative, cost-effective, credible research that meets the needs of a carbon-constrained world.” This research focuses on clean, sustainable energy and brings with it national and international attention to the center and the region.
Smith says: “The University of Idaho is successful in Idaho Falls largely due to community support. No public institution can long survive without support of the community it serves.”
“Bob is a perfect example of cooperation between the National Lab and the University for the benefit of the State of Idaho,” according to Dr. Fred Gunnerson, Director of the University of Idaho’s Nuclear Engineering Program.
When asked about the future of the Idaho Falls Center, Smith affirms the University of Idaho’s statewide mission through a continued focus on delivering science, engineering and technology degree programs and research that complement the needs and interests of the INL. University of Idaho began offering classes in Idaho Falls in 1954 to support INL’s educational needs. This relationship with the INL is vital and will continue. In addition, the center is expanding its programs in areas such as nuclear energy and attracting new science and engineering graduate students from around the world to southeast Idaho.
Possible future programs might include selected professional graduate science management programs similar to the Executive MBA program now available at the UI’s North Idaho locations. In partnership with the INL, UI in Idaho Falls is also poised to support Idaho K-12 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives.
Dr. Smith chaired the 2009 University of Idaho’s President’s Sustainability Symposium Committee on behalf of former President M. Duane Nellis. The symposium, Transition to Sustainable Energy Systems, was held in Idaho Falls on October 22-23, 2009 and served as a forum for the university community, policy makers, implementers, stake holders, and subject matter experts to interact and explore key issues surrounding energy sustainability. Since the inception of the Sustainability Symposiums in 2007 Smith has been a key player.
Smith’s connection to the University of Idaho is deep and goes beyond his job. His late wife graduated from UI’s Idaho Falls Center. The Moscow campus is a place to which Smith feels very comfortable sending students. “The Moscow campus provides a quality education through a classic residential experience that allows young adults the opportunity for intellectual exploration of theirs and others’ beliefs and values while in a safe and supportive environment.” All of his children (three sons) have attended the Moscow campus, a son and daughter-in-law have graduated and another son is currently a student. Smith’s third son is currently attending college at another Idaho institution and his step-daughter also graduated from another college in Idaho.
But don’t think that it’s all work and no play for this dedicated public leader. Just as he sees the balance and connection between the world around us, education, and the future of energy, he believes in balance in his own life. Smith enjoys fly fishing and travelling with his wife Tilly. As often as they can, they also spend time playing with their grandchild and are actively engaged in community service and events.
That kind of commitment requires no sunburns.
Bob Smith Onsite
Onsite at a groundwater bioremediation experiment. "A wide brim hat and a long sleeve canvas shirt are essential for field work in the Idaho desert in order to prevent sunburn."