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Scientist receives high honor for decades of work

By Steve Hansen

In the mid- ’60s, Tyler Coplen’s scientific curiosity and the skills developed in a one-on-one glass-blowing class with chemistry professor Robert Olsen got him in a little trouble. Namely, it enabled him to learn how to use glass condensers – an essential skill for the distillation of spirits.

When Coplen ’66 set up his newfound hobby in his on-campus room, needless to say, some found the practice objectionable. Soon thereafter, he found himself living in his car for a short time.

That didn’t dampen Coplen’s spirits – he continued his studies at PLU and earned a degree in physics, with a minor in chemistry. And it didn’t hamper his long-term prospects either, as Coplen was recently awarded the highest honor from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Distinguished Service Award.

Coplen entered the University of Chicago’s Ph.D. program in the geophysical department. “I didn’t know a rock from anything,” he recalled. “But they told me, ‘if you understand physics, then we can teach you about geology.’ ”

That has certainly proved true. A few years after receiving his Ph.D. in 1970, he landed a job with the U.S. Geological Survey – a position he describes as an ideal job of academia in the federal government – and he’s been there ever since.

Coplen credits his experience at PLU (and in particular, his work with Olsen and physics professor Olaf Jordahl) for what he has been able to do. “The education in various laboratory sciences was exceptional,” he said. “Students were taught and encouraged how to work with both their hands and their brains.”

And those same hands that enabled him to build a distillery helped him develop state-of-the-art laboratory capabilities before scientific manufacturers could produce them – namely, the automation of isotope-ratio mass spectrometers.

It is this, and the large body of work in Coplen’s 30-year history at the USGS, for which he was honored.

In short, Coplen studies isotopes – atoms that make up chemical elements. As Coplen describes it, whereas hydrogen is present in all water, the isotope Hydrogen-2 (a component of that atom called deuterium) varies by a factor of two in water around the world. This means a scientist can measure the amount of deuterium in water and know where it came from.

The technique allows him to be able to attack numerous environmental problems, such as understanding the interaction between rivers and lakes and ground water, or the contamination of (and remediation) of ground waters.

His recent work with the analysis of the amounts of carbon and oxygen isotopes of calcium carbonate rock at Devils Hole, a subaqueous cavern in south-central Nevada. By studying the isotopes found within these walls, Coplen was able to document natural patterns of climate change through the last 500,000 years.

Career move paid off for professional poker player

By Katherine Hedland Hansen ’88

When Mark Gregorich’s teaching job fell victim to budget cuts, he moved to Las Vegas and gambled on a new career in poker.

Ten years later, Gregorich ’92 is well known in poker circles and makes a good living as a professional player.

“I try to treat it as a job because that keeps me responsible, and it’s what I rely on for my income, but I love playing,” he said.

He plays about 30 hours per week – usually at the luxurious Bellagio hotel – but when he’s playing a tournament, that can quickly go up to 60 or 70 hours. He travels to some tournaments but relies on his daily games for most of his income.

Gregorich started playing poker when he was a teenager for fun and a little money, way before it was the cultural phenomenon that televised tournaments have made it today.

A poker table serves as the office for Mark Gregorich ’92, who supports his family as a professional poker player in Las Vegas. Photo by BJ Nemeth.

“As I got older, my friends and I kept playing,” he said. “I made a few trips to Vegas after I turned 21 and did well.”

When things didn’t work out in his position as high school social studies teacher in Olympia, Wash., he moved in 1995 to Las Vegas, where he studied history at the graduate program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and played poker at The Mirage.

“My trips down I did well, and I was curious to see if that was just a fluke,” he said.

It wasn’t. He’s recognized as a pro. He wrote a chapter in poker great Doyle Brunson’s book “Super System II: A Course in Power Poker ” and writes a regular column in Card Player magazine. He has been a commentator for tournaments on Fox Sports.

His biggest win was $130,000 at an event in the World Series of Poker. He’s had numerous other wins between $10,000 and $100,000, he said.

Gregorich plays the popular Texas Hold ’Em, but he’s most renowned for Omaha High-Low. In both games, players try to make the best hands with their own cards and a set of common cards.

He says games have become more crowded with the advent of televised play and Internet poker. And many people are hoping to strike it rich at a table with little experience.

“As long as you have enough for the buy-in, you can play,” he said. “But if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to lose.”

Gregorich describes himself as a solid, disciplined player who doesn’t get worked up over the highs and lows of the game.

“I have a reputation for being really consistent,” he said. “When I put my money into a pot, people tend to think I have a really good hand. I don’t have a reputation as someone who throws his money around.”

Gregorich acknowledges that gambling can be a “monster” for some people and he has seen the downfall of too many. He says it takes a certain temperament, along with skill and luck, to master the game enough to live off it. He supports his wife, Mary, a stay-at-home mom to their young children Mary and Benny and his stepson Thomas.

“I’m not a gambler just for the sake of gambling,” he said. “I’m lucky I don’t have any issues with that. Some people like to play dice and slots, and that’s an expensive habit.

“You have to have self-control. You have a lot of frustrating days when things don’t go your way. The game can be real consuming if you allow it to be.”

He’s seen plenty of players trying to win money back by placing more and bigger bets, only to get farther into the hole.

“If I’m in a tournament and I win a key pot or lose a key pot, it gets pretty intense then,” he said. “Normally I don’t get too up or down. You know you’re going to have some losing days.”

Gregorich has played with some of the top-ranked players often seen on the televised games, and he hopes to win an event on the World Poker Tour.

While his dream of professional poker has been a success, he says it’s not easy, and he advises against people choosing casinos over college. Although his degrees don’t necessarily help him in his present career, he says he’s glad to have an education and another option if he decides he’s done with poker.

“I don’t recommend it for kids because it’s kind of a dead-end. I’ve seen people go broke. Not too many people have been able to do what I did.”


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© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Fall 2005

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