Mark Helper: Distinguished Senior Lecturer Emeritus

HelperBy Monica Kortsha

For decades, Mark Helper has spent his summers leading students on the Jackson School of Geosciences’ capstone field camp. But he has new plans for next year: returning to blueschist research and fly fishing.

After taking part in field camp for 37 years — and serving 27 of those years as its director — Helper retired from the Jackson School in August, about a month after finishing his final camp.

“It was particularly gratifying this final summer to join the class near the end and find everyone in such high spirits and working hard,” he said. “It was a stellar group of students, teaching assistants and instructors, as good as any I’ve worked with, a truly high note to end on.”

Helper is the architect of the camp’s ambitious itinerary, which whisks students across six states in six weeks to take in a diverse array of geological landscapes, from the gypsum expanse of New Mexico’s White Sands National Park to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. Over the years he has guided hundreds of students, some who have gone on to lead field camps of their own.

Jamie Levine, who assisted Helper as a graduate field assistant and now leads a field camp as an associate professor at Appalachian State University, recalls how Helper would get students to engage with complicated geology by asking encouraging questions rather than giving a straightforward lecture.

“Mark is such a phenomenal instructor,” said Levine. “He did a great job of modeling what to do.”

Helper has spent his entire professional career at The University of Texas at Austin, earning a doctoral degree from the school in 1985 and staying on as a postdoctoral researcher and then instructor. After graduating, he and his wife Sharon Mosher, who was then an assistant professor at the school, briefly considered pivoting to careers in oil and gas, with the two even getting industry offers in Dallas.

“But in the end, we realized that we weren’t that interested in working in oil and gas or being somewhere else,” Helper said.

Mosher went on to become the dean (and retired last year.) Helper continued conducting research — spending his first years on the same blueschists that occupied his graduate research and then collaborating with scientists across the school on a variety of projects. At the same time, he prioritized teaching, going on to earn the title of Distinguished Senior Lecturer in 2007.

“I didn’t aspire to be a tenure track faculty member,” Helper said. “I was interested in research, and when teaching came along, I got really interested in that. I wanted to focus on being a great teacher.”

Over the years, Helper has received multiple awards for just that. He is a six-time winner of the Jackson School’s Knebel Distinguished Teaching Award (the first in 1995, the last in 2021), which is determined by student vote, as well as the UT College of Natural Sciences Teaching Excellence Award in 2002, and the Jackson School’s Outstanding Educator Award in 2011.

Helper got his start teaching students in the field in the 1980s, first as a teaching assistant in graduate school and later as a lecturer teaching the field methods class and field camp.

But the field camp of the `80s was very different from the camp of today. In response to the booming oil industry, enrollment at the school shot up to more than 800 students (almost three times what it is now), and field camp classes regularly had more than 100 students. The camp usually stuck to two states — New Mexico and Colorado — with students staying in ski condos or college dormitories instead of making camp each night.

By the time Helper became field director in 1996, field camp class sizes had shrunk to about half that, and the class had begun to experiment with camping. He saw an opportunity to build on that.

“I thought that we ought to further integrate camping as a means of seeing more of the Rockies and diversifying our field projects,” Helper said. “With 10 years of experience, I knew we could do a lot more for less if we were willing to travel and camp more.”

Helper helped transform the course into a cross-country trip from Texas to Montana, involving more instructors from across the school to teach different modules at field sites paired with their geologic expertise.

“We now go through the entire Rockies,” said Jackson School Professor Charlie Kerans, who teaches the carbonate geology section of the course. “Students get to see the best of everything.”

Helper later adapted parts of the field camp curriculum to help train NASA astronauts in field geology, a project that he has been involved with since 2009 but has UT roots reaching back to the Apollo program. His retirement plans include continuing to take each new astronaut class on a mapping exercise in New Mexico.

Helper’s expertise isn’t limited to the field. He founded the school’s GIS course in 1999, teaching students how to use GPS and other digital data when the technologies were just getting a foothold in the geosciences. He also took the lead of the school’s gems and gem minerals course. From 1987 to 1999, Helper taught the course with lapidary artisans Glenn and Martha Vargas, with Helper covering the science and the Vargases teaching students the craft of polishing and faceting gemstones. And when they retired, Helper assumed that role as well.

Along with the course came curatorial responsibilities for the Department of Geological Sciences’ gem and mineral collections, which Helper helped take into the digital age, taking digital photos of specimens and establishing an online catalog in the early 2000s with the help of numerous undergraduate student assistants he supervised.

Being at the helm of a variety of classes, both on campus and in the field, Helper got to know students better than most other instructors, said Kerans. When undergraduates needed a recommendation letter for graduate school, they went to Helper about 70% of the time, he said.

Helper said playing a part in student success was one of the best parts of the job.

“Along with the many, many opportunities I’ve had to work with colleagues, being a small part of a student’s future success is one of the most rewarding aspects,” he said.

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