For students in Civil and Environmental engineering, John Spear is well known and quite popular professor. “The Oredigger” sat down with him to ask him a few questions and discover his life and journey to Mines.
Born in southern California within close proximity to both NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), Spear was influenced early and often by science. In high school, a teacher by the name of Mrs. Patterson, whose husband taught at CalTech, influenced him greatly and helped him realize he was drawn towards the sciences.
After high school, he attended the nearby University of California San Diego (UCSD). In his fourth year at the UCSD, he changed his major from bioengineering to animal physiology because, as he said, “I decided I didn’t know if I really wanted to be an engineer, and it’s not recommended to switch majors in your fourth year so I took another year to finish my degree.” During college, he worked in labs in and around the UCSD medical school and enjoyed the research experience he received as an undergrad.
Upon graduating, Spear went to work at the Scripps clinic in La Jolla, California, now the Scripps Research Institute, to work on synthetic vaccines for tuberculosis. After “getting tired of doing science,” he went to Wyoming to take a class with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Spear attended a fall semester in the Rockies with NOLS doing activities such as skiing, caving, backpacking, and climbing. He then went back to work at Scripps for a few more years doing research as a technician. “Not knowing what I wanted to do with my life and with science in general, I quit that job,” said Spear. From Scripps, Spear moved to Summit County, Colorado and worked the rental shops at the Keystone Ski Area for three years. Growing tired of the long hours and busy schedule, Spear went to work full time as an instructor for NOLS, specializing in high-altitude mountaineering and caving. After several years, he “figured out that you can’t carry real heavy, big backpacks for the rest of your life” so he went back to graduate school.
During his time at NOLS, the environment became a focus and Spear started to think about the way things affect people and the environment around them. As he put it, he had “grown to appreciate the environment and what it means to think about not only my personal place but what is humanity’s place in the environment.” He started looking into graduate school. Having a background in engineering and science, the environmental engineering program at Mines stood out because of what it could offer to him from a science standpoint, so he choose to attend CSM for graduate school. Once he had a Masters degree he decided he enjoyed Mines and the program, so he went for his Ph.D.
Spear was one of the first doctorate students in the environmental engineering program at School of Mines, and in his time in the program, he researched the remediation of uranium and how to better clean it up after mining. Uranium mediation is an expensive process and using existing methods like ion exchange resonance produces a massive amount of waste that cannot be used.
Spear took a biological approach to remediation looking at how bacteria could be used to transform the waste into a useful product. Using a kind of bacteria called sulfate-reducing bacteria as a treatment method, soluble Uranium 6 is broken down by the bacteria and produces insoluble Uranium 4, also known as uraninite. The reaction worked by running uranium contaminated water through a biological reactor and the bacteria in the reactor would precipitate out the uraninite so it could be mined and sold. Spear received his Ph. D. after studying the kinetics of this reaction and moved on to his postdoctoral studies. Spear did a six year post doc at CU Boulder in molecular microbial ecology with Dr. Norman Pace. While there, he was exposed to microbial life in all environments, including microbes that live in extreme environments (extremophiles) at places such as Yellowstone. After his post-doc, Spear came back to Mines for a faculty job and has been here at Mines for eight years.
When asked why he came back to teaching, he explained how he learned how to teach while working as an instructor with NOLS, saying, “It was easy to teach people about a glacier for instance when you are standing on/looking at said glacier. So teaching in front of a classroom was a different challenge because you have to be able to paint a picture with your mind for the students to be able to see what you are talking about because it is not right in front of them. Also teaching is a learning experience. I learn just as much from my students as they learn from me and I try to show enthusiasm for what I teach because of my experience in the field and love of what I do. It’s a blast and it’s a challenge to be able to teach and I just enjoy it.”
Spear is married and has two daughters. He met his wife, who was also a student, during his first NOLS course and they got married after a couple of years of knowing each other. After they were married, they took a year off to go on a bicycle trip around the perimeter of the United States because they wanted to “get to understand and know our own country before we got to know the other countries of the world, and riding 65 miles a day on a bicycle is a great way to get to know your country.” He has been living in Golden for 20 years.
His hobbies include skiing, biking, hiking, fly fishing, caving, and climbing, and basically any outdoor activity. He is also the president of the faculty senate and serves on multiple graduate student committees. The faculty senate represents the faculty as a whole to the administration and the board of trustees. They speak for the curriculum and what needs to be taught to stay current as humanity and technology evolve.