Former scholarship recipient pays it forward at College of Mines & Earth Sciences

Dr. Donald D. Runnells and his wife Erika A. Runnells met at the University of Utah where they developed long-lasting relationships with friends, professors, and colleagues. Don received his B.S. in geology in 1958, after which he earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in geology and geochemistry from Harvard University. After graduate school, Don took a job with Shell Development Company, where he conducted research in carbonate geochemistry. He later took a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Barbara and eventually joined the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he taught and conducted research for 24 years. Don retired in 1993 as Chair of the Department and joined a private environmental engineering company in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Don feels that his time at the University of Utah helped him to succeed in his career because of the excellence of the professors who taught the classes in his field. They truly cared about their students, and they went the extra mile to instill knowledge, insight, and, most importantly, enthusiasm in their students. The fact that most of his classes were taught in old and somewhat tattered buildings did not detract from the excellence of the education that he received from world-class teachers. They prepared him well for entry into graduate school and for many of the aspects of his subsequent career.

In 2011, Don and Erika decided to include the College of Mines and Earth Sciences as one of the beneficiaries of their estate. It is their intent for their gift to establish The Donald D. and Erika A. Runnells Endowed Graduate Scholarship Fund in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. When asked what motivated them to create this endowment as part of their estate plan, Don said, “I was motivated by two things: First, my general affection and good memories of the great teachers and role models and fellow students in the former Department of Geology at the University of Utah and, second, by the fact that I was helped in my own graduate studies by an endowed scholarship. Based on my own experience as a student and a professor, I know that even a small amount of additional financial help can ease the stress on the student and his or her family and make it a little easier to successfully complete his or her graduate program.”

The Donald D. and Erika A. Runnells Endowed Graduate Scholarship Fund will provide a wonderful way for the Department of Geology and Geophysics to support the recipients’ graduate studies including travel, publications, equipment, supplies, living expenses and stipend. Don hopes that the fund will help University of Utah graduate students enjoy excellent experiences studying geology. Don explained, “One thing that was important during my years at the U was the fact that Utah offers such a remarkable outdoor laboratory for the study of geology. I have often thought how fortunate I was to be trained in geology in the State of Utah.   Some of my best memories of my years at the U are the experiences that I had on geology field trips. In fact, the first field trip I ever went on as a freshman was to Sandy to examine the fault scarps that cut the terraces of Lake Bonneville -- my eyes were opened and from that moment on I knew that I wanted to be a geologist and I have never regretted it.”

Don offered the following advice to future graduate students: “I would tell a graduate student three things: A. Select a specialty and a research topic that you love and don't worry about the job situation in that field. If you work in something that you truly love, you will excel at it and the job will come looking for you. B. Enjoy your time as a graduate student. It is a wonderful opportunity to study a topic in depth and to make a meaningful contribution to your science. It is also a unique and wonderful time to build friendships that can last a lifetime. C. Pester your professors for guidance and help at every opportunity. Take advantage of their experience and their love of teaching. Don't isolate yourself in your office and try to do it all on your own.”

To others considering a planned gift to the University of Utah, Don says, “It is a good feeling to know that when you include the University of Utah in your estate plans, you will be helping future students obtain a first-class education. You can probably look back on your own time at the U and recognize how that education helped you to succeed professionally and personally. An estate gift to the U now will be 'paying it forward' to help students in the future build their own paths to success in life."

Don spent his entire professional career working in the fields of aqueous geochemistry, mineralogy, and economic geology. He was supported and strengthened by his wife Erika as they moved around the country while raising a young family. It is their hope that the financial support that they have offered will help future generations of students to achieve their academic and scientific goals.