Founding Geosciences Faculty Member Reflects on Campus Journey
Nov. 4, 2014
Dr. Richard Mitterer is professor emeritus of geosciences at UT Dallas.
UT Dallas has come a long way since its inception in 1969. No one knows that better than Dr. Richard Mitterer, professor emeritus of geosciences.
Mitterer was here when the research arm of the University was known as the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies (SCAS). One of the original members of the geosciences faculty, he started as an assistant professor and eventually became the head of the Department of Geosciences as well as a member of the board of directors at the Geological Information Library of Dallas.
Mitterer recently sat down with University archivist Ty Lovelady to look back at how his time here began.
Graduating to Research
After earning a bachelor’s degree in geology at Franklin & Marshall College, Mitterer headed to Florida State University, which offered a specialization in oceanography.
“I was offered a research fellowship. One of the faculty members had a grant to pursue a particular project and I had taken extra chemistry as an undergraduate,” Mitterer said. “Because of my chemistry background, they asked me if I would take on that research fellowship, which I did. That led to everything I’ve done since then.”
That project involved studying amino acid compositions of proteins in organisms and how the protein breaks down over time. Five years after he began his research, Mitterer was pursuing his PhD when he met Philip Abelson, a researcher from the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
“Because of my interest in his field, they asked him if he would spend a few minutes with me. I explained my project and asked him questions. He suggested that I come to the Geophysical Lab to do my research,” he said.
After continuing his research at Carnegie and completing his PhD in 1966, Mitterer received offers from Exxon Research Lab in Houston, the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver and Carnegie. But he wasn’t interested in working in oil or being a junior faculty member with a heavy class load.
Called to UT Dallas
While mulling his options, he received a call from Dr. Anton Hales, head of the Division of Geosciences program at SCAS, who invited him to Richardson for an interview. He got the job. For Mitterer, it was a chance to pursue research full time, and he knew that SCAS could become an academic institution one day.
“Being on the ground floor of a growing institution, the idea of being able to set up a research lab and get some research done was the primary motivation on my part. It was a gradual introduction to an academic environment. Much better than if I’d started at an established campus. This was very beneficial and helped my research tremendously.”
“Being on the ground floor of a growing institution, the idea of being able to set up a research lab and get some research done was the primary motivation on my part,” he said. “It was a gradual introduction to an academic environment. Much better than if I’d started at an established campus. This was very beneficial and helped my research tremendously.”
Mitterer went to work building a research lab. By 1975, UT Dallas began accepting undergraduates, and he became the head of the geosciences program. Creating an undergraduate curriculum that also meshed with the nearby community college program was no small feat.
“Finding out what courses were doing well and which ones weren’t, what tweaking we had to do with the undergraduate program and hiring faculty was a major chore as well as becoming an academic department instead of a research department,” Mitterer said.
He counts this and his fundraising achievements among his top accomplishments. Mitterer has raised money that went toward several scholarships, which have totaled more than $1 million.
New Interests, Title
By the late 1980s, his interests shifted. Mitterer took a leave of absence from the University and worked for the Department of Energy. For three years, he worked in an office that awarded research grants. In the early 1990s, he participated in the Ocean Drilling Program in which scientists collect sediment from the sea floor.
In 2003, Mitterer officially retired but continued to teach an earth systems class in the spring at UT Dallas. He had accomplished everything he desired with his research, but there was one achievement that still evaded him. Mitterer wanted emeritus status with the University.
To receive the title, he would have to give up his salary from the University, so in 2011, he stopped teaching. But even after getting emeritus status, he wasn’t done in the classroom. After a faculty member left, Mitterer was asked to teach again. He agreed to do it but without pay.
“It was an ego thing. I wanted the official title emeritus on all the University websites, not lecturer. I felt like after almost 40 years at the University, I didn’t want to be called a lecturer,” he said.