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Geology Alum to Put Skills to Use in Afghanistan

Alexander Stewart (Geology BS ’00, PhD ’07) will take part in a U.S. Army agribusiness mission underway in Afghanistan.

Date: 12/1/2008
By: Matt Cunningham
Phone: (513) 556-4190
Photos By: Alexander Stewart provided
Alexander Stewart’s adult life has followed two paths. On one hand, the Oak Hills High School graduate followed an interest in geology to McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, from which he earned a BS in that discipline in 2000 and a PhD in 2007. He now works as an assistant professor of geology at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.

But Stewart also chose to serve his country in addition to his scientific interests. He enlisted with the U.S. Army at age 17 and served as a radio operator for the past 18 years. His military career took him to Alaska, Central America and Iraq, all while he worked on his degrees.

Now, the Army is capping his military career with a final mission, one that will allow him to put his geological knowledge to use in a peacekeeping role. Stewart will be deployed for one year to Ghazni, Afghanistan, in early 2009 as the geologist member of a 12-person agricultural development team.

Alexander Stewart stands in front of a mountain range in Alaska.
Alexander Stewart, shown here in Alaska, will deploy for Afghanistan in early 2009.

“I was recruited from the State of Texas Army National Guard having been here for only five months,” he said. “Apparently, word got around that I had certain qualifications as a geologist. From the federal or state level, they hunted me down and recruited me.”

The team, which also includes experts in topics such as animal husbandry, business development and farming, will build off work started by a team deployed last April. That first team established experimental farms, bee hives, dams and even demonstration farms to show Afghani farmers subsistence farming as an alternative to opium farming.

“We also have to convince local bankers that economic farming is worth their investment,” he said. “Currently, they don't like to lend money to farmers.

“My impression is that the U.S. Army and U.S. government will assist in funding these new farms only if the farmers and community do all the ground work and get the project started — this is not a welfare situation.”

Stewart said that despite his degrees, this will be the first time his civilian occupation will be applied to a military mission.

“This mission will be quite different from my previous missions,” he said, “primarily because I will be deployed as a geologist rather than my military specialty, communications. I will also be an adjunct with Ghazni University, so the opportunities for professional development are there, too.”

According to Department of Geology Professor Thomas Lowell, the divide between Stewart’s military and scientific interests did not hold him back from pursuing his own research, even when deployed.

“Alex is eclectic in his whole range of interests, but once he starts on something he follows up on it,” said Lowell, who recalled informally advising Stewart while he was deployed in Iraq. Stewart had taken an interest in scorpion behavior, said Lowell, and the soldier collected enough data to publish a number of articles on the subject.

Alexander Stewart teaches a Kashmiri girl how to use a yo-yo.
Alexander Stewart plays with a Kashmiri girl during a 2005 University of Cincinnati research trip to India.

“Here’s this kid in a war zone, and in his spare time he’s looking at scorpions,” said Lowell. “He’s a self-starter and isn’t scared to get into his interests.”

Stewart, in turn, credited his open perspective to what he learned from Lowell and the rest of McMicken College’s geology faculty.

“Science is a way of thinking,” said Stewart, “not of gathering or storing facts, data or knowledge. Dr. Lowell taught me to be philosophical and to make good observations as a field geologist, things that seem to be slipping by the wayside as technology increases.”

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