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Military Service in Iraq Leads UC Undergrad to Hydrology

Developing water resources in Salah ad Din Province inspired Andrew Schneider to pursue research in hydrology through the Department of Geology.

Date: 6/6/2011
By: Ryan Varney
Phone: (513) 556-0142
Photos By: Andrew Schneider
While UC geology undergraduate Andrew Schneider was stationed in Balad, Iraq during his military service, he and his platoon were responsible for providing security, economic and social development for a specific area southwest of his base. Part of this development included improving the irrigation system that provided water to outlying farmland.

Andrew Schneider on the banks of the Tigris River
Andrew Schneider on the banks of the Tigris River

Though existing canals were in great disrepair and work was needed to get them functioning properly, Schneider found there was another, much tougher challenge he and his platoon faced.

“We were on a Sunni-Shi’ite split,” he said. “The Sunnis were located close to the river banks while the Shi’ites were further out. The Sunnis could control the water access to the further out farms [run by the Shi’ites] and there was huge economic disparity.”

Though the split between the two religious sects wasn’t violent, it was definitely a social and economic cooperation problem.

“There wasn’t a lot of open animosity, but it was more like ‘We don’t talk to them and they don’t talk to us.’ We worked for a long time trying to convince both sides that it was in everyone’s best interest to provide water to the Shi’ites and this meant the Sunnis had to spend money on updating the irrigation system.”

Eventually Schneider and his platoon got through to both sides. “We got them to understand that they didn’t have to talk everyday or all the time, but when there were problems of that magnitude they needed to get together and sort it out.”

At one point after the irrigation system was up and running, the canal broke when a six-foot section of concrete collapsed and allowed all the irrigation water to flood out into an empty field. While it cut off the water supply to a lot of farms, Schneider saw great benefits: “What was great about it was that we didn’t have to fix it. They [the Sunnis and Shi’ites] saw the problem for what it was and realized what it meant and they went out and took care of it. The fact that they understood the effects and actually talked to each other enough to restore the water access was amazing.”

When Schneider first arrived in Iraq he would drive through the streets and it looked like a ghost town. There were no street markets and people would shut their doors and windows because they were terrified of the U.S. Army presence. But by the time he left, the streets were overflowing with people and street markets and restaurants were thriving.

“It was really a great feeling to go through and see this change. People felt confident in their community, in their country, enough to have these kinds of things.”

Schneider’s problem-solving acuity and ability to bridge cultural divides have not gone diminished since arriving as a student in the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati. Geology Professor Carlton Brett says, “Schneider is extraordinarily gifted with excellent communication skills and the ability to grasp the most difficult concepts very readily.”

It’s no surprise the U.S. Army promoted him to captain and awarded him six medals, including the Bronze Star.

Schneider has also been described as “honest, humble and reliable,” traits he displayed when he experienced first-hand the effects of the water problem. Besides being used for irrigation purposes, the canal water was also used as drinking water.

“I was out talking to one of the shaikhs living further out and he said they desperately needed new water treatment facilities because the kids were all getting sick from drinking the water. So I tried to bring them bottled water whenever I was out there along with putting in a request for a new treatment facility. One time I was offered a glass of the canal water to drink and I had to drink it. If I was really doing everything I could and truly understood what was going on, then drinking the water should be no big deal. I was laid up for three straight days. Sickest I’ve ever been.”

The experience really demonstrated the severity of the water problem and steered Schneider toward pursuing a career in geology and hydrology.
Andrew Schneider in Guilin, China
Andrew Schneider in Guilin, China

When he finished active duty two years ago, Schneider moved to Cincinnati with his wife Maggie who was enrolled as a MD/PhD student in neuroscience at UC. It was a perfect time for him to go back to school. With his previous degree in history, he couldn’t just jump right into the geology master’s program. So Schneider has spent the past two years taking undergrad classes as prerequisites to get into graduate school.

“It’s uncomfortable [being a non-traditional student]—I’m 29, an undergrad and it’s confusing. Someone asked me the other day when I was graduating. Well, I’m not really graduating, I’ve already graduated seven years ago.”

But Schneider is still glad to be where he is. “The Post-9/11 GI Bill has allowed me to take the steps to get into a graduate program so I can get my master’s in geology. It’s really helped the transition from being in the military to pursuing a civilian career.”

Schneider continues to use his military experience to bring people together. In one of Brett’s lecture classes, Schneider invented a game called “Brett Bingo.” The game helped students become more engaged in the lectures by listening for key lines and catch phrases. “Indeed, he is an outstanding role model and mentor to other students,” Brett adds.

Fellow professor David Nash is impressed as well. “Last fall, Andrew asked if he could be an undergraduate TA in geomorphology. Given his performance in the course when he took it, I was delighted to accept his offer. He’s been stellar…an absolutely indispensable teaching assistant.”

Now that Schneider’s finishing up his undergraduate classes, he’s looking forward to pursuing his master’s, especially since it means working with a remarkably cohesive group that is the Department of Geology.

“The geology department has great professors and a great cadre of students who all get along really well with each other. I actually heard this first from some of the graduate students I talked to. They’ve spent time traveling around, working with other geology departments, and all of them commented about how well our department gets along. Apparently it’s quite a rarity.”

Schneider will get to see the difference almost immediately as he’s scheduled to participate with various geology departments this summer in a project run by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) addressing arid region hydrology.

“I’m going out to San Diego with the USGS to look at the Salton Sea and the aquifer under the sea there. We’ll be trying to figure out if it’s possible to pump the aquifer and use the water for agriculture and what the effects will be.”

Nash—who has worked with the USGS for 25 years—recommended that they hire Schneider, saying, “Until this year I have only recommended the USGS hire one of my students. Based on Andrew’s superlative performance in the two water-related courses he’s taken from me this year, I urged the USGS to hire him to work with them this summer.”

While Schneider is looking forward to the USGS project, he is equally as excited to start his master’s work.

Due to his experience in Iraq, Schneider is most interested in studying groundwater development in developing nations, especially arid regions like sub-Saharan Africa and even central Asia. “I think both those areas are in critical need for groundwater resources and development.”

So far Schneider has spent time with Nash stream gauging, a process that measures the amount of water going through a stream at a given time. Stream gauging helps them to see how much water is available and how to budget it for individual and industrial use, a key aspect in groundwater development.

Says Schneider, “Cincinnati has some of the best water resources in the country, mostly because it is glaciated terrain around here. There are very thick, good aquifers, so this is a great place to study groundwater. Very few places in the world have these types of resources.”

No matter what direction Schneider ultimately pursues, he will attack it with the same rigorous work ethic that has served him in his past achievements. “In truth, he could excel at virtually any subject he chose to pursue, but he has a strong interest in hydrogeology and will follow through with excellent graduate research, and I would predict, a brilliant career,” says Brett.

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