University of Vermont

University Communications

Mineral Man

Release Date: 09-15-2010

Author: Jon C. Reidel
Phone: 802/656-8206 Fax: (802) 656-3203

John Hughes

John Hughes, former provost and current professor of geology, holds a sample of the mineral Hughesite named in honor of his work as a geologist for the past 30 years. (Photo: Sally McCay)

During his three-year tenure as provost and senior vice president at UVM John Hughes was never quite able to give up his passion for mineralogy. Long work days as an administrator were often followed by nights of studying the chemistry, crystal structure and physical properties of minerals. The dual academic and administrative careers of the professor of geology have resulted in a unique distinction: the only college provost in the world to have a mineral named in his honor.

Researchers at Miami University, where Hughes taught and held multiple administrative positions from 1981-2006, submitted a nomination to the International Mineralogical Association's Commission on New Minerals -- the governing body that has named minerals since 1958 -- to have vanadium oxide Hughesite named after Hughes for his "life-long contributions to mineral structures, chemistry and classification using X-ray techniques."

Hughesite, a member of the Pascoite group of minerals, was discovered two years ago in the Sunday Mine in San Miguel, Colorado, and officially became the newest addition to the approximately 4,500 recognized minerals in the world in 2010.

"Having a mineral named after you is the highest honor one can receive in our profession," said John Rakovan, associate professor of geology at Miami-Ohio and driving force behind the naming effort. "John is very humble and would never admit this, but he's definitely one of the top mineralogists in the world and well worthy of this distinction based on his career in mineralogy and extensive work on the Pascoite group of minerals and vanadium bronzes. He is one of only a few people who can say they've played a direct role in the solving and naming of at least 15 minerals."

A life-long mineral junky

Hughes, who has described his research as unraveling the nature of matter on Earth by determining the arrangement of atoms in crystalline earth materials (minerals), says he's been enamored with minerals for most of his life. In conversation, he seems to enjoy talking about a wide range of topics such as sports, politics and the economy, although his affable smile doesn't fully broaden until the subject of geology comes up.

"I'm smitten by science," says Hughes, who jokingly told his wife Susan Hughes, associate professor in the School of Business Administration, that he was going to have the crystalline structure of Hughesite tattooed on his arm. "I knew by age 21 what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I can't wait to get up and work every day. My son says he wouldn't call what I do 'work' because I love it so much. We had a rule in our house that we couldn't talk about science until after 9 a.m."


A sample of Hughesite, streaked with bright yellow and orange similar to other minerals in the Pascoite group. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Hughes' research, which centers on the minerals apatite and tourmaline, provided the unique opportunity to determine and study the atomic arrangement of a lunar mineral (merrilite) from the Apollo 14 mission. "It was one of the more exciting things I've ever done," he says.

Although Hughes' transition into administrative work took away from his research, it didn't prevent him from advancing in both areas. Among his administrative accomplishments at Miami, Hughes oversaw a doubling of external research awards in two years; consolidated the Office of Sponsored Research and the Graduate School; and improved graduate student diversity and compensation. As a researcher, he secured more than $3 million in grants to pursue his interest in minerals, published three books and authored numerous papers in publications such as American Mineralogist, Canadian Mineralogist and the European Journal of Mineralogy.

"He was the best chair I'd ever seen," says Rakovan. "I wasn't surprised at his dual successes because he had a real forte for both science and administration."

The mineral name game

For a substance to be classified as a mineral it must be a solid, have a crystalline structure, and be a naturally occurring, homogeneous substance with a defined chemical composition. It's incumbent upon the scientist to prove to the IMA's Commission on New Minerals, which rejects more mineral submissions than it approves, that the submitted substance meets the criteria. If approved, mineral names can reflect their composition or physical properties, but may also be named after people, places, organizations and even events.

Hughes, who has had other people attempt to name minerals after him earlier in his career, joins an elite group of individuals with minerals named after them including American chemist, peace activist, author and educator Linus Pauling; American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins; and a host of legendary mineralogists.

"Nature made a very limited number of minerals, and to have one of them named after you is truly humbling," says Hughes, who served as provost from 2006-2009. "The process of finding and solving a mineral is a team effort. We really owe a lot to the amateur community and mineral collectors like Joe Marty (discoverer of Hughesite). I can think of a lot of other people who should have minerals named after them before me, but I'm very grateful."