Dr. Paul C. Buchanan is anything but your ordinary geology instructor. From studying rocks, to working for NASA, from East Texas to Germany it seems like KC’s 2014 Piper Professor nominee and Beeson Award winner, has had his share of adventures.
During each academic year, the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation honors 15 Texas professors for their dedication to education and for their outstanding scientific, academic, and scholarly achievements. Each of the 15 honored instructors will receive “Piper Professor of 2014” certificates, a gold commemorative pin, and $2,500. Buchanan will also be honored by KC with a $700 award as part of the Hamilton F. and Kathryn G. Beeson Teaching Award, along with a matching amount for his department.
“I’m really honored to be the nominee for the Piper Professor nomination, because I was selected from such an outstanding group of educators,” Buchanan said.
A native of Tyler, where his family was one of the first to plant roses – for which the town is now known – Buchanan’s father was a geologist. Naturally, his childhood was full of rocks, soil and geology-related field trips. However, when he began classes at the University of Texas at Austin, Buchanan decided to pursue a degree in chemistry, which he studied for the first two years of his college career. When he began looking at classes he needed to finish his degree, Buchanan found that none of the classes he would be taking held any interest for him; so “for fun” he enrolled in a geology class.
“Of course, I had been going on field trips since I was little, and I knew all this stuff, and so I loved it, and I ended up changing my major,” Buchanan said. “Now I am actually a geochemist. I do a combination of the two.”
Once he graduated from UT with a bachelor’s of science in geology, Buchanan continued to further his education at the Colorado School of Mines where he received his master’s degree in geophysics.
From the Colorado School of Mines, Buchanan began working for ARCO Oil and Gas Company. With the company he served as the senior geophysicist primarily working on oil and gas exploration.
“I did topography [there] and mostly interpreting geophysical data, but we made maps. It was mostly maps,” Buchanan said. “I actually enjoyed it. I learned a lot. I learned a lot of basic geology and geophysics.”
During his time there, Buchanan decided to return to school for his doctorate at the University of Houston, and eventually left his job with ARCO. While taking his first few classes at U of H, just “to get back into the swing of things,” he met a “big, larger than life” character by the name of Elbert King. King, who had been the first lunar curator after NASA’s first manned mission to the moon, took Buchanan under his wing.
“About a year later, his friend came and was chairman of our department,” Buchanan said, “and so they really mentored me.”
Their guidance played an important role in his doctoral degree, according to Buchanan. When he first began studying for his Ph.D., his research topic was volcanoes. With King’s guidance, along with guidance from the department chairman, Buchanan’s research shifted from volcanoes on Earth, to asteroidean volcanoes, primarily on the asteroid Vesta, for which he eventually earned his doctorate degree in planetary geology.
By the time he received his Ph.D. in 1995, Buchanan was older than most post-grads and therefore not really at the age that anyone would hire him for an entry-level position at a university.
“I had all these contacts around the world, because I had worked with a lot of people while I was doing my Ph.D.,” said Buchanan. “So I started asking them [about jobs] and one of them said ‘we have this program in South Africa, why don’t you come visit for a year, year-and-a-half,’ so I applied and I was there within a couple of months.”
In Johannesburg, South Africa, Buchanan worked as a post-doctoral researcher for the Department of Geology at the University of Witwatersrand. His research in South Africa led him to start a major geological project in the African Bushveld Complex.
“[The complex] has something like 80 percent of the world’s platinum I think. It’s really… the biggest mineral deposit in the world,” Buchanan said. “I developed this big research project on part of it that nobody had really worked with much… to find out kind of why it’s there, why it formed there.”
His research in Africa continued until 1997, when he took a job with the Institute of Geochemistry at the University of Vienna, in Austria. There, he continued to serve as a post-doctoral research, like he did in Africa, as well as serving as a guest lecturer for the University. He moved from Vienna in 1998.
Buchanan returned to the states, to work on the National Research Council for the Johnson Space Center, until 2000, at which time he moved back to South Africa to continue his work at the University of Witwatersrand.
At the end of his second stint in Africa, Buchanan was at a conference in Rome, when he ran into “the grandfather of planetary science,” a Japanese man who had been the friend of his adviser for his Ph.D.
The man asked him if he was interested in moving to Japan and in 2002, Buchanan began working for the National Institute of Polar Research in Japan, as the guest of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, an organization that is equivalent to the National Science Foundation.
Buchanan also worked extensively with the Natural Science Museum collection of meteorites in London after becoming friends with the museum’s curator, who asked Buchanan to serve as a post-doctoral researcher there.
After his father passed away, Buchanan moved back to his hometown to care for his mother. Once back in East Texas, he decided that it was time to “settle down.” He enrolled in the teaching certification program at UT Tyler. He completed the program in 2007 after student teaching for high school and middle school science and math classes. About two weeks after completion, the science department position at KC opened up and he has been working here since.
Buchanan said he believes that KC provides an interesting opportunity to interact closely with his students. Whereas at other colleges that he has worked, the relationship between student and teacher has been more distant, Buchanan enjoys being able to “introduce geology to students who are planning their futures,” in a more personal approach.
His responsibilities at the college include creating the geology curriculum, coordinating the geology unit and serving as one of the two Phi Theta Kappa faculty advisers.
At this time, Buchanan isn’t looking to retire. In fact, he says that he really hasn’t given the idea much thought.
“… I love KC! I’m planning to stay here for the rest of my career,” he said.