Meet a scientist: Robert Mace

Robert Mace, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Chief Water Policy Officer at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and a professor in the Department of Geography at Texas State University.

Mace has worked as a water researcher for over 30 years, and his affinity for solving problems about the natural world began at a young age. “I was interested in rocks, and I was good at math,” Mace said.

Motivated by his mother and financial incentives, he decided to combine his interests to pursue a degree in Geophysics at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

One day during his undergraduate, Mace was working through a scholarship application. In this application, he was asked to write an essay responding to the question, ‘How are you going to make the world a better place with your degree?’

“Let me tell you, I wrote some really good stuff to answer that question about finding oil to meet the world economy's growing needs and debt and things along those lines,” Mace said. “But my heart wasn't in it.”

After he realized this, Mace began keeping his eyes and ears open for new opportunities and career paths.

As Mace began to think about different career options, he wondered if he would have to change his look to get the job he wanted.

“I was a bit of a goth punk and I had Robert Smith hair that just kind of stuck up. I mean, it literally went all over the place,” he said.

At the time, he was working as a dishwasher for the university cafeteria. When he expressed his concerns to a fellow co-worker, his co-worker responded, “Well, you know, there’s this grad student over in hydrology who has crazy hair, you should figure out who her advisor is, and see if they have a job.”

Mace knew this graduate student. “And she really did have crazy hair,” he said.

Immediately after this conversation Mace looked up her advisor and noticed there was a job posting for an undergraduate student worker. “And so I went and interviewed for the job with my crazy hair, and he hired me,” he said.

This job was Mace’s first experience working in hydrogeology, a field that he spent the rest of his career exploring.

He enjoyed it so much he stayed at New Mexico Tech after completing his undergraduate degree and pursued a master’s degree in hydrogeology.

“I worked on the sand dunes, mine tailing, contamination type projects and just got a lot of really good hands-on experience in fieldwork and lab work. I also really liked the people that were in it,” Mace said.

Finding his place

After completing his master’s degree, Mace left the Land of Enchantment and relocated to Austin, Texas.

“It was love that brought me to Texas,” Mace said. His then-girlfriend, and now wife, had been accepted into a master's program at the University of Texas to study materials engineering.

“I was interested in music and familiar with the Austin music scene, so it wasn't much of an arm-twist,” he said.

In Austin, he continued his education and enrolled in the doctoral degree program in hydrogeology at the University of Texas. During this time, he worked on many different projects including superconducting supercollider sites and the Edwards Aquifer. “At this time I was really trying to figure out where my space was in hydrogeology,” he said.

“And so while I was working on all these projects, I read a lot of books and leveraged my programming skills to become a numerical groundwater flow modeler,” he said.

“And that was my space.”

His expertise in groundwater modeling pulled him onto “a really miserable but really cool” project for the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) analyzing benzene plumes.

“A study had just been published out of one of the national labs in California that showed these plumes could be naturally reduced without human intervention or treatment, which typically is very expensive,” Mace explained. “So the TCEQ was asked by the Texas legislature to figure out if this could also work in Texas.” 

To figure this out, Mace and three graduate students entered more than a million benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene concentrations (BTEX). “That was the miserable part, because it was pre-internet and nothing was digital,” he said. “But what was really cool about it was that I was able to use my modeling and computing skills to find out that yes, natural attenuation was occurring in Texas.”

Through this project, Mace realized that he felt most fulfilled working on projects with immediate and relevant impacts.

“A copy of the plume analysis report was put on every single desk over at the Texas State Capitol, and it really changed Texas policy in terms of how they dealt with these things,” he said.

Settling into his space

Soon after the benzene plume project, Mace was pulled onto another groundwater project as a contract worker for the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). Mace only worked as a contractor for a few months and then transitioned into a full-time employee role. 

At the TWDB, Mace had the opportunity to continue working on projects that had immediate local impacts.

“The board had an extensive stakeholder process and I really liked that,” he said. “here's groundwater modeling, here's this stakeholder involvement, and here's the immediate relevance to the problems the region and the state are facing.”

Mace decided he would move on from his job with the TWDB as soon as he got bored of the work.

“Well, the opportunities were endless, so I never did get bored,” he said. He ended up staying at the TWDB for 18 years.

Three events caused Mace to ultimately transition careers: he turned 50, he became eligible to retire from the state and David Bowie died.

“Each one of those felt like a small trumpet of my mortality,” he said. “So I stepped back and did a quick life assessment and asked myself, What's the one thing that you want to do that you haven’t done yet?”

The answer to this was working in an academic institution. “Universities are places where dreams come true. It sounds silly but it’s true” Mace said.

So when the position at the Meadows Center opened up, Mace jumped at the opportunity. “At that point, my thinking was that I would step in and I would just be a lowly groundwater professor, but they had something bigger in mind for me,” Mace said.

As a director and a senior researcher at the institution, Mace continues to help solve water problems in Texas. He enjoys the creativity of working at a university and finds working with students especially rewarding.

Outside of his professional experiences and formal education, Mace considers the Toastmasters program a major factor in his professional success. “It’s up there, if not exceeding my Ph.D., in terms of how it’s helped me in my career,” he said.

In this program, Mace learned how to respond to questions thoughtfully and spontaneously. “Now it really only takes me seconds to collect my thoughts and then I’m ready. That allowed me to be able to explain things to policymakers, and be comfortable talking to policymakers, in hearings, and to public audiences.”

“Because of it, public speaking has really become something that I’m known for,” he said.

In his free time, Mace keeps himself busy with “too many hobbies and interests.” He still loves music and cultivates this by DJing on Friday nights and is a member of a three-person band called Uma Theremin. He also keeps a blog and writes about architecture and food reviews.

Looking back and ahead

Mace has grown to love living and working in Texas, and proudly considers himself a “zero-th generation Texan.” However, he hopes to eventually make it back to New Mexico, where he first fell in love with water research. “It really is my spirit state,” he said.

When asked how he would now respond to the scholarship prompt about how he plans to use his degrees and skills to make the world a better place Mace responded, “My personal mission statement is helping people understand water, so they can make informed decisions, which has been true with the work I’ve done at the state and at the university.”

Reflecting on his career, Mace views it as one big experiment.

“I experimented with so many types of work during my education, and when I eventually transitioned into groundwater modeling, it just felt right. I also had a talent for explaining science to non-technical people, so when I mashed those two types of work together, it really felt complete.”

Authors

As a communications intern, Ava helps write and edit for TWRI publications, manage social media accounts and assist the communications team with various projects. 

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