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  November 25, 2002

Alum Establishes Fund For Geology Field Study
By Art Sorrentino

Studying the processes that continually shape and renew the Earth's surface enables geologists to use the long history of the planet recorded in rocks and fossils to predict its future, and to apply this knowledge in exploring for mineral deposits and energy resources.

There is no better way to study these processes, geologists say, than to make observations in the field.

A recent gift to the University from alumnus Kevin Bohacs '76 will enable more UConn geology majors to learn first-hand about the results of natural forces and processes on the Earth's surface and structure.

"Getting into the field and touching, smelling and even tasting rocks is a field geologist's dream," says Tim Byrne, associate professor and head of geology and geophysics.

The geology and geophysics department has for years offered field trips for students to important sites in the western United States - such as the Grand Canyon or Death Valley - to study Earth science.

"Looking into the Grand Canyon," says Byrne, "is like looking at a giant hole in a layer cake - only in this case, what's on view is 500 million years of geologic history."

The gift from Bohacs has established a permanent fund - the Nugget Fund - that will help offset the travel costs associated with geological field work. Proceeds from the endowment will provide financial assistance for students on field trips, as well as supporting undergraduate research and enhancing departmental programs, such as symposia, lectures and conferences.

Byrne and Bohacs met when they were graduate students and remained in contact through professional meetings. They share some joint research interests, such as the formation of sedimentary rocks and the reconstruction of ancient ocean basins.

After Byrne became head of department, he learned that Bohacs was an alumnus of UConn and approached him for a gift.

Bohacs, now a geoscientist with the ExxonMobil Upstream Research Co., is particularly interested in global climate change, assessing how the earth's geological history reflects shifts in climactic conditions through the eons since the planet was formed. The data is then used to help the company pinpoint likely sources of oil reserves.

Following a series of discussions that included another alumna, Lila Salvatore '75, Bohacs made a donation to the University through Campaign UConn that created the department's first endowed fund.

Professor Randy Steinen, who retired recently, led student field trips earlier this year and will lead another next spring. With the help of the fund, the group may again head to the western United States, or may decide to strike out for more exotic locations like Hawaii, the tropics, or even Cuba.

Scientists believe a large meteorite struck the earth in the area of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, contributing to the extinction of the dinosaurs. If Byrne and his colleagues are correct, the geology of Cuba can provide dramatic evidence of this event.

"These types of trips open students' eyes to the world," says Byrne, "culturally as well as scientifically."

Now that he's had successful dealings with one alumnus, Byrne is working with the UConn Foundation to persuade other alumni who work for ExxonMobil or for other corporations to contribute to similar ventures at their alma mater.

He says ongoing investments like The Nugget Fund will help UConn remain competitive in the field of Earth sciences. He hopes also to add dedicated laboratory space to recruit new faculty.

"This is an exciting time in the department," he says. "This fall we admitted one of our largest and most qualified cohorts of graduate students ever, and we're working with a number of departments to develop a multidisciplinary program that links Earth, ocean, and life sciences."