Remembering J. Donald Rimstidt
Updated: Mar 25, 2019
mentor n. an experienced or trusted advisor
Professor J. Donald Rimstidt passed away this morning. I knew Don for just three years, but he was an influential person in my life. I mourn his passing, send my love to his family, and honor his memory with this story.
Don and I first met in March 2016 to discuss the permeability of shale, which was the topic of a paper he was writing at the time. Before the meeting, I expressed doubt that I'd be any help because shale is not my expertise. Don wanted to meet anyway and I was excited to spend an hour with the leading expert in geochemical kinetics. Over the course of this hour, Don asked me question after question, eventually organizing my knowledge into a cohesive narrative about shale permeability. I don't recall the permeability narrative, nor does it matter, but I do remember how I felt after the meeting. I felt good. I felt helpful. And perhaps most importantly, I felt valued in a Department where I wasn't sure I actually belonged.
Several months after our first meeting, Don emailed me again. This time he wanted to discuss basalt dissolution. Discuss chemistry with the world's leading expert on geochemical kinetics?!? I was panic stricken and unsure whether I could even have the conversation because chemistry has always been a black-box mystery to me. Again, Don insisted that we meet and we did. Before he even sat down, I launched into an apologetic confession, "Don, I am terrible at chemistry. I still have to look up the difference between cation and anion." He laughed, sat down, and said, "OK, we'll work on that." And for the next two hours Don patiently (and without judgement) worked me through the chemical reactions for CO2 dissolution in water, basalt mineralogy, and basic geochemical kinetics. When the meeting finished he said, "So, do you want to write a paper on this?" For the next six months, Don and I met regularly to fit rate models to literature data, implement them in a numerical simulator, and discuss geochemistry of the basalt-water-CO2 system. I also took in his course on geochemical kinetics. As an untenured faculty member, this was exhilarating and fun! I was learning geochemistry on the basis of numerical simulation (my specialty) from the guy who wrote the book on the subject, while also writing a paper in a subject that I once thought unattainable! To an outside observer our collaboration may have been humorous - I would come up with model after model, and Don would systematically explain to me why they were nonsense. He was thorough, but this iterative process taught me that teaching and research are a continuum that cannot exist in isolation.
Our paper was eventually published. For Don, this paper was just one in a long line of geochemistry papers. For me, our paper is much, much more. Don found me at a low point in my career, when I wasn't sure I could make it in a top-tier Department. He had confidence in me that was lacking in myself, and during the course of our project he methodically transferred this confidence to me. While jury is still out on whether or not I make it, I sort of think I can. And I thank Don for that.
In many ways, the definition of mentor is woefully inadequate for my relationship with Don. He was certainly an experienced and trusted advisor, but he was also a selfless advocate for my success. Surely he knew some reactive transport modelers that could have implemented his rate equation much more efficiently, but he chose to work with me. To teach me the science. To build my confidence. In an academic world where individual accomplishment is rewarded above all else, Don used his experience and advice to make those around him better. I don't know what to call that, but it's far more than mentor. I am grateful to have known J. Donald Rimstidt. I will miss him. And as we mourn the loss of a giant, we can serve his legacy through selfless dedication to science and those who pursue it.