CRYSTAL LAKE – Kansas and Thailand share an agriculture-based economy, concerns about preserving water and a 1980 Crystal Lake South High School graduate-turned-geologist.
Marcia Schulmeister spends much of her time as an associate professor of geology at Kansas’ Emporia State University, a role that has led to four trips to Thailand to work with other academics, government officials and locals on water resource issues.
“The whole world has concerns about their aquifers now,” she said. “Seeing how other cultures have done it can help us and can help them, too.”
The latest trip, about two weeks around the Thanksgiving holiday, was the result of Schulmeister being chosen as a Fulbright specialist, a U.S. State Department program designed to promote short-term collaborations between American scholars and professionals and their counterparts abroad.
Each year, Fulbright places about 400 academics and professionals in these types of short-term programs, on top of the 800 chosen for the core Fulbright Scholar Program, according to its website.
Schulmeister’s work sent her to northeastern Thailand where increasingly common droughts have been affecting the productivity of the area’s rice-paddy fields, an important part of the country’s economy.
Her tasks included demonstrating American technology that could be used for accessing ground water or for using naturally flowing artesian wells found in the area – some of which shoot into the air to heights of up to 30 feet – to fill massive surface storage tanks, an artificial storage system that’s happening in Kansas. too.
She spent her time talking with all sorts of people, including other professors, government officials, students and even the residents of villages that have sprung up near landfills and make their living by searching for recyclables in the nearby trash heaps.
Schulmeister finds working with students one of the best parts of her job.
“They have the energy to build on [the research I teach them],” she said. “I give them just a little bit of information, and they take in a whole new direction.”
Katy Schwinghamer, a first-year master’s student at Emporia who has worked with Schulmeister for the last year and a half, will travel with Schulmeister when she heads back to Thailand this summer. She described Schulmeister as a “really hands-on professor.”
“[The field work]’s really helpful,” she said. “We can read about things in books, but you do not get the experience you get when you’re out in the field, meeting other geologists and seeing what they do.”
The outdoor lab work is what drew Schulmeister to geology as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, too, though she’s been collecting rocks since age 3, she said.
“It didn’t dawn on me [before] that that’s what I should be doing,” Schulmeister said.