Faculty Spotlight: Ron Cohen

At the end of class, students are told there will be a substitute for the next class, and are warned to be prepared for anything. As a result, many students imagine a skinny, crazy man with an Einstein hairdo and an atypical teaching style.

When the substitute professor arrives the next day, the students are taken aback to find a man who could easily be mistaken for a bouncer at the roughest bar in town standing before them with an eternal smile on his face and no hair at all. But the most surprising feature of this professor is the object in his hand. It has the look of a medieval weapon made from household materials. The students’ fears are confirmed when the man tells them exactly what the object was made from, where the components came from, and how long it took him to build. He even tells the class the name of the apparatus. “This is my tool for the amplification of centrifugal force for the purposes of student behavior augmentation,” he says with a slightly menacing look in his eyes. Those students who have met this horror know that this professor is Dr. Ron Cohen of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Cohen has been an integral part of the Environmental Program at CSM since his arrival in 1986.

To understand Cohen and how he arrived at CSM, one must begin with Cohen’s college education. Engineering was a family affair for Cohen, but the Mines professor took a more unique road to Golden. “Well, some of my uncles were engineers and physicists, and my parents wanted me to go to med school,” said Cohen, “but I thought I would show them all by going into music.” He explained how he started as a music major playing the clarinet at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. However, by the end of his second semester, Cohen realized that music was not his future. Taking into account his poor grades, Cohen decided to leave Temple before they kicked him out.

Two years later, Cohen decided to give Temple another try and returned to the school to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Biology with a strong background in Physics. After acquiring his degree, Cohen moved the University of Virginia where he received a fellowship in Molecular Genetics. “I hated every minute of it. Cooped up in a sterile room with institutional green walls,” Cohen said. Looking for a new direction, he heard about the small Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Virginia and soon thereafter received his PhD from the University of Virginia with a focus on Mass Balance and Transport.

After graduating, Cohen did a one year stint as an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia. It was there that he discovered that his passion was in academia, and more specifically, in teaching and doing research. But a full time professor position was not yet in the cards. He was hired by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), in 1978, as a Water Quality Specialist/Environmental Engineer working in the National Research Program in Reston, VA. His focus was on water in the the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. While at the USGS, Cohen created new programs such as PETS, PEST, PEPSI, and POOP. The author will not mention what these acronyms stand for, so those interested will have to visit Dr. Cohen at his office (Chauvenet Hall 122) and ask.

While with the USGS, Cohen also taught at George Mason University and George Washington University. Those experiences “confirmed my desire to teach and do research,” said Cohen. During Cohen’s sixth year at the USGS, he found a job opportunity at a little school with only 1250 undergraduate students in Colorado called the Colorado School of Mines. It sounded interesting, so he applied for the job and called CSM to request some information about the school. No information ever came. However, serendipitously, on the plane ride to his interview at CSM, Cohen sat next to one Mrs. Olsen, who at the time was the head of International Programs at CSM. She provided him with informative brochures and gave him a tour of the campus. The interviewer the next day was surprised when Cohen came in and knew so much about the campus, especially since the school did not send Cohen any information. He received a job offer in August of 1985, and started in January of 1986 as one of the three faculty in the newly created Environmental Engineering department.

In 1986 the environmental program comprised of just 54 graduate students. One of the professors left soon after Cohen started, making it hectic for the fledgling department in the early days. For a long time, Cohen had to “justify the existence of the department” at faculty forums, because many thought the department was just a bunch of ecologists (in fact, many of the professors were ecologists) or “political rabble rousers.” As a result, Cohen was instrumental in directing the department away from the more qualitative nature of ecology toward the more quantitatively driven engineering nature the department has today.

The first project Cohen was involved in was with the cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities such as the Rocky Flats Plant near Arvada, Colorado where he received a Certificate of Congressional Recognition for his work. Cohen later shifted his focus to the treatment of mine waste and produced water from oil and gas wells. This led to another project where he worked with mine waste treated with wetlands, which he described as one of the most interesting projects in which he has participated. “Instead of taking a black box approach, waste in, treated water out, we looked at what processes were actually removing metals and reducing acidity.” Cohen and other CSM faculty soon discovered that it was microbes called sulfate reducing bacteria that were doing most of the remediation. “So, then, we went about figuring out how to adjust conditions in the wetland to maximize the efficiency of the sulfate reducing ability of these microbes. Unfortunately, the wetlands were inadequate to accommodate these conditions and we were having problems.” Cohen and some graduate students then worked out a design for a bioreactor to fix the issues.

Given Cohen’s extensive experience and success in engineering, other schools such as the University of Colorado and Montana State University have offered full-time positions to the Mines professor. Yet despite this, Cohen has decided to remain in Golden, for a variety of reasons. The primary reason being the size of Mines. “I can go to the student cafe and have lunch with freshmen and sophomores in a relaxed, informal environment that is not possible at other institutions,” said Cohen. “At anytime, I can walk around campus and say hello to at least 25% of people and recognize, if not know their names.” This has led to one of the main reasons that Cohen has captured the attention and affection of his students. “I see people at Mines as my family. These are not just my students, these are my kids… Who else would put up with my bad puns and jokes? Plus I have a captive audience.” he said.

Cohen added that he feels “fortunate to have been and continue to be in a department with so much collegiality” and that “it is a pleasure to get up in the morning and look forward to coming in, plus I can take out my frustrations and anxieties out on students and feel so good afterwards.”
And for such a comical man, what is his favorite joke? “It is a long series of puns that would take up most of the article, so I won’t say,” he said.

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