Skip to main content

Headley, Schaefer tabbed as SDSU Distinguished Engineers

An internationally recognized geotechnical engineer and the director of the Sanford Underground Research Facility have been selected as the 2024 Distinguished Engineers at South Dakota State University. 

Vernon Schaefer and Mike Headley will be honored at the April 23 Engineering Scholarship Banquet at Club 71 in Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. Tickets are available online until April 16 and cost $20. 

Their induction brings to 148 the number of people honored by the College of Engineering since Dean Junis O. Storry began the award in 1977.


Earned acclaim through geotech website 

Vern Schaefer
Vern Schaefer

Schaefer, a 1974 Miller High School graduate and a December 1978 civil engineering graduate at SDSU, also taught at his alma mater from 1988 through 2002. He served as head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering from July 1999 to December 2002 and directed the Northern Great Plains Water Resources Research Center from August 1994 to December 2002. 

Schaefer then taught at Iowa State University for the next 20 years, where he collaborated on 33 projects as principal investigator or co-principal investigator with expenditures exceeding $7.7 million. 

Most notable was the development of the website GeoTechTools. This effort started in 2007 with funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Strategic Highway Research Program 2 project. The website was opened to the public in 2012 and has more than 12,000 registered users.

The effort earned him recognition from the American Society of Civil Engineers Geo-Institute. He also has traveled internationally to present at conferences and workshops on landslides and ground improvement. 

The website is considered akin to a Wikipedia for ground improvement in geotechnical solutions, such as road embankments or bridge piers. More than 50 technologies are imbedded in the system. 

While in Brookings, he was very involved in youth and collegiate wrestling. Schaefer served as director of the Warren Williamson/Daktronics Open collegiate wrestling tournament at SDSU from 1993 to 2002 and directed the 2000 NCAA Division II National Wrestling Championship. 

Schaefer and his wife, Ruth, an SDSU nursing graduate and former SDSU Student Health nurse practitioner, have three grown sons and have retired to a home at Maple Lake, Minnesota.


Headley leads underground research facility at Lead

Mike Headley
Mike Headley

Headley, a Brookings native, graduated from Brookings High School in 1987 and from SDSU in 1992 with a computer science degree. 

He was active in Air Force ROTC, becoming the national commander of the Arnold Air Society, an honorary service organization for Air Force ROTC officer candidates. He also achieved the rank of cadet brigadier general, making him the highest-ranking Air Force cadet in the nation. 

Headley spent six years in the Air Force, including a stint at the National Reconnaissance Office, where as a 28-year-old, he was directing a 200-member multi-agency government and industry team that was acquiring, launching and operating a suite of intelligence satellite systems. He received a Defense Meritorious Service Medal for his service. 

Upon leaving the military, Headley worked 10 years at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Baltic. Among his accomplishments was leading the planning, development and delivery of the next-generation Landsat satellite mission — the largest project within the U.S. Department of the Interior and a joint mission with NASA. He managed a budget of $280 million and led a 120-member civil servant and contractor project team. 

In 2008, he was hired as deputy lab director of the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) at Lead, formerly the Homestake Mine. 

In December 2010, the National Science Board decided not to fund further design of experiments there. In 2011, the same year Headley was named lab director, the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to support science operations. Today, federal funding is managed through a cooperative agreement with the DOE’s Office of Science, with additional funding through the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority. 

Headley is credited with providing the leadership to establish SURF as the deepest underground laboratory in the U.S., hosting world-leading scientific work a mile underground. 

Currently, the lab is partnered with the Department of Energy’s Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, to construct the largest science experiment ever attempted on U.S. soil — a $3 billion project that aims to unlock the mysteries of why there is a matter-dominated universe. 

Headley, his wife, Elizabeth Freer, and daughter, Alexandra, live in Spearfish.