A native of British Columbia, Canada, Larry McKay had to pull out a map to locate the state of Tennessee twenty years ago when he was invited to the University of Tennessee to interview for a faculty position.
The University of Tennessee was the place he wanted to go to start his career as a professor after he learned the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences would award him the Donald H. Jones Professorship of Hydrogeology.
“I probably would have never come to UT,” without the Jones Professorship, said McKay as he reflected on other offers from various institutions of higher learning. “What separated UT from the rest was the privilege of receiving a professorship and the additional resources that came with it.”
The endowed professorship, established by 1950 UT geology graduate Donald Jones and his wife Flo, has given McKay the opportunity to combine his love of teaching with research. As one of the foremost scholars in his field, McKay, who is the head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, was selected to serve as the Geological Society of America (GSA) 2008 Birdsall-Dreiss Distinguished Lecturer for the hydrogeology division.
Through this prestigious international lectureship series McKay traveled around the world for a year speaking at forty-six universities and research institutions about his research on contaminated soils and water. His lectures also included such diverse topics as cleanup of defense-related manufacturing sites in Tennessee and fecal contamination in Bangladesh wells. “It was partly because of the support from the professorship that I was able to develop such a successful research and teaching program that caught the attention of the GSA nomination committee. Without the professorship I would not have been able to reach and educate so many students,” McKay said.
His eyes brightened as he explained the opportunities made possible by the Jones Professorship. “I can offer graduate students hands-on research experience in the field and science lab.” He also was able to pursue diverse research projects including one which examined the effectiveness of cleanup of pollution in Chattanooga Creek, which not only furthered his research but helped the community.
Being both a learning and research institution is a direct link to attracting the best scientists and geologists, said McKay.
Through his extensive research involving clay and waterborne pathogens, McKay has developed collaborative ties with the UT Center for Environmental Biotechnology, the UT Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment and the UT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. In an effort to provide community education for residents affected by the industrial contamination in the Chattanooga Creek area, McKay also has worked closely with the UT College of Social Work to establish a Neighborhood Environmental College and an Environmental Health and Justice Collaborative.
Interdisciplinary research is what inspired McKay to pursue his doctorate in earth sciences at the University of Waterloo after he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1981 with his bachelor’s degree in geological engineering. “Being able to ask a question and find the answer to a science-based problem is what I fell in love with,” McKay said.
The love affair with science did not come easily for McKay who was a first-generation college student.
Growing up in a milling community in northern British Columbia, McKay said it was commonplace to graduate from high school and work in the mills. After initially struggling with the college experience at the University of British Columbia, McKay decided to try working in the sawmill. A few months of stacking lumber outside in temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero helped convince McKay to go back to his first love of science.
With the Jones Professorship, McKay said, “I’ve never looked back.”