Just an update…

So, I’ve been writing my M.S. thesis and preparing for my big move to AZ to start a Ph.D. program at ASU. This is why I haven’t updated in so long.

I will return this Fall with fresh new posts, I promise!

Best,

Stephanie

Virginia is for (province) lovers: Part I

I’m from Virginia, and for that reason, I’m pretty partial to it compared to other states in the USA. In fact, I have this memory from elementary school chorus during which we sang a song called the “Fifty Nifty United States.” At the end of the song, patriotic school children are to exclaim that their home state “is the best of the fifty nifty United States.” In my case, Virginia earned that title, and I still believe that after all these years.

I also began learning geology in Virginia, so the foundations of my geologic knowledge are based upon Virginia’s regional characteristics. The first geology course I took was called “Regional Geology of Great Falls Park, Virginia” and the very first thing we were taught during that course was the physiographic provinces of the state.

Virginia is separated into five provinces that run approximately NE to SW and include (from west to east): the Allegheny (Appalachian) Plateau, the Valley and Ridge, the Blue Ridge, the Piedmont, and the Coastal Plain. About a year and a half ago I was traveling to Georgia with some other University of Kentucky geology students, and as we passed some of these provinces, I became excited and remarked that we were entering a physiographic region with which I shared some history. This earned me a nickname close to “province [queen]” but a little less appropriate for online publication.

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Physiographic map of the mid-Atlantic region. The yellow line marks the approximate location of the southern border of Virginia. (Image courtesy of the United States Geological Survey, source for annotated image)

As a “province queen,” over the next two posts, I’d like to recount some recent experiences during travels across some of these areas in the last week or so. I left Lexington (crossing the Allegheny Plateau) to participate in a trail race in Blacksburg, VA and to visit my husband in Radford, Virginia. Blacksburg and Radford are parts of the greater New River Valley, one valley that makes up the “Valley and Ridge Province” in Southwest Virginia. The province is given this name because of the “crinkled carpet” sort of topography that exists there. The valleys are underlain by rocks (like carbonates) that erode easily while the ridges are made up of more resistant sandstones and conglomerates. Before being eroded, these rocks were deformed during Appalachian mountain building. They responded to contractional stresses by folding and thrust faulting along weaker rock layers in an orientation consistent with the distribution of stress associated with the collision (perpendicular to the direction of force).

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Friends and I pre-race with scenic valleys and ridges in the background near Blacksburg, VA

A couple of days after the race, I spent a half-day with my husband near Floyd, VA. We drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway to do a trail run and then enjoyed some wine at Chateau Morrisette, which is nearby. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a road that runs through another physiographic province (can you guess which one? Correct, the Blue Ridge!). As in the Valley and Ridge province, the rocks that make up this province were exposed during Appalachian mountain building: they were deformed and transported along faults. The rock types that make up this province; however, are different from those rocks that make up the Valley and Ridge. Exposed along the Blue Ridge are “basement rocks” that have deeper, more “complex” origins: they show evidence of an even older period of mountain building that happened prior to the formation of the Appalachians. This “basement-involved” process exposed older metamorphosed volcanic and sedimentary rocks that erode differently than those in the Valley and Ridge and therefore result in different topography.

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Running along the Blue Ridge Parkway: views to the west show the nearby Valley and Ridge province.

This topography – which has been evolving over several millions of years – creates breathtaking views that make running along trails and relaxing with a glass of local wine one of the most pleasant experiences!

There’s plenty more Virginia travel and geology to discuss in my next post: Virginia is for (province) lovers: Part II. Stay tuned!

Machhapuchare: “Like a spire of a higher kingdom”

I study the Himalaya, and I’m not alone. Many geologists for many years have gone to South Asia to attempt to understand one of the most magnificent orogens on Earth. It’s also commonly referred to as the “type example” for continent on continent collision and is usually the first of this type to come to mind for most students of geology. The Himalayan mountains and the Tibetan Plateau to the North formed as a result of the collision between the Indian subcontinent and the Eurasian tectonic plate which began about sixty million years ago. Since both plates are made up of continental lithosphere, the crust thickened at the convergent boundary, and the Himalaya peaks uplifted. Weathering and erosion by glaciers and rivers at the surface also sculpted these peaks. All of this combined created some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

I study the complex processes at work during this type of tectonic event using computer simulations. I also like to have a way to “ground-truth” my numerical models so one year ago I traveled to the field with my colleagues to collect rocks along transects that span the major rock units and faults in the Himalayan range. We trekked to the Annapurna region along the Modi Khola and Marshyangdi Rivers in central Nepal collecting rocks, taking measurements, and making field observations.

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Farmed foothills en route from Kathmandu to Pokhara

As my first time in the Himalaya, I was beyond excited to have this opportunity. Also, since I didn’t study geology as an undergraduate, this gave me a chance to develop some skill in field methods.

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Enjoying Dal Bhat for lunch along the Trishuli River

There is a lot I can write about regarding that field season, and I hope to cover it across many entries. For this post; though I want to describe the first time I saw one of those magnificent Himalayan peaks.

The Himalaya is unique in that it has some of the highest topographic relief in the world. The difference in elevation changes very dramatically in this region. Due to this relief, as one approaches the high Himalaya, there is an abrupt change in climate such that at one moment it feels almost like a jungle and the next there are snowfields and glaciers everywhere.

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Machhapuchare at dawn.

I was riding in a jeep from Kathmandu with my colleagues observing the tree-covered foothills and cloudy skies associated with the onset the of monsoon season and then all of a sudden I saw it – a blinding white abstraction proffering from between the clouds – Machapuchare. As the first Himalayan peak to which I’d bared witness, and rhapsody challenging to describe overcame me. To see something that beautiful but with such threatening presence flooded my being with complex emotion. I’m not the only one to feel this way. In fact, I will borrow some words from my favorite writer, Peter Matthiessen:

“[Four] miles above these mud streets of the lowlands, at a point so high as to seem overheard, a luminous whiteness shone – the light of snows. Glaciers loomed and vanished in the grays, and the sky parted, and the snow cone of Machhapuchare glistened like a spire of a higher kingdom.”

Stay tuned for more on Macchapuchare.

#ImAGeoscientist

Today is Earth Day, which is a pretty important day for people like me. Perhaps you’ve seen the trending #IAmAGeoscientist (#ImAGeoscientist) posts around social media associated with the American Geosciences Institute’s (AGI) effort to celebrate this day by highlighting the efforts of those the people that study the Earth and its complex systems.

I’m proud to proclaim that #IAmAGeoscientist too; because in being that, I get to be myself. My discipline lets me do all of the things I enjoy and study the things that inspire me without ever sacrificing those things that make me – well – me.

Geoscience permeates through my being and influences most things that I do. This compatibility exists because the activities in which I engage, the thoughts that infiltrate my mind, and the phenomena that captivate me day-to-day all involve my craft.

For example, yesterday I spent about half of my day relaxing with my husband. We went to visit a waterfall in Southwest Virginia and then went on a hike through the Valley and Ridge province of the Appalachian Mountains. I had a great time hiking, crossing streams, climbing rock formations, and meditating in the noisy tranquility of wilderness. I reflected on the regional geology – to which I’ve been fairly well-exposed – as well as the implications of myriad features presenting themselves to me. My main purpose wasn’t science, but that aspect never really leaves my mind.

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Ripples forming in stream sands, Dismal Creek, VA

Then there were the events of today. I spent most of my time on my computer. I am running numerical models, creating figures for a manuscript, and putting together a scientific poster for a workshop I’m attending next week in Colorado.

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Scenic valleys and ridges in Southwest Virginia

The point is that being a geoscientist is multi-faceted. Sure, we get to go to the field, observe the natural world, and explore wild and exotic places. We also get to work long hours in laboratories, perform tedious analyses, and attempt to interpret results that can be pretty darn daunting sometimes. Then we get to think about the broader implications of our science: we get to interpret our findings in ways that resonate with the community-at-large and beyond as well as attempt to engage outsiders (through policy, education, and outreach) that are less familiar with our work.

Like I mentioned before. It’s multi-faceted, but I love each and every aspect. In fact, there is no other label that I’d rather give myself than Geoscientist.

Off to the Races

I’ve been living in Kentucky for almost two years now, having moved here to work towards an M.S. degree in Geology at the University of Kentucky. Prior to moving to Lexington, the only thing I really knew about the Commonwealth was that it was well-known for Bourbon, Bluegrass, and horses. I have fond memories of chatting with my friends back home about moving to Kentucky, ironically sporting a flamboyant hat, and sipping Mint Juleps at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. My desire to do so was somewhat based off of a morbid curiosity that I picked up after reading the short essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. That story was written during a time with a different degree of civil unrest than today, but I figured there were elements of the atmosphere that may persist and could likewise permit an interesting cultural experience.

Unfortunately, I likely won’t get the chance to actually attend the Kentucky Derby. I spent last year in Nepal doing field work during the event and will be running my first ultramarathon in Virginia this year. So, unless life brings me back to Kentucky some early May, I’ll have to celebrate it remotely like so many others.

To make up for this; however, I accompanied the week’s seminar speaker to the Keeneland race track in Lexington for my first thoroughbred sporting event. Departmental seminars are common in the sciences (as well as many other disciplines). They offer the dual benefit of affording students and faculty members an opportunity to hear about research that others have been conducting as well as expanding professional networks by interacting with scientists outside of the home institution. For this particular seminar, Prof. Eric Ferré from Southern Illinois University presented on some work that stemmed from his time cruising with the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP).

The IODP is an international research program that focusses on extracting cores of rock from deep within the Earth from below the sea-floor. IODP research vessels explore our planet’s vast oceans with the goal of gleaning information about that part of the Earth which we still don’t fully comprehend. For his talk, Dr. Ferre introduced audience members to a type of rock within oceanic crust that forms in so-called “fast-spreading” centers in a transition zone between sheeted dikes – where ocean water mixes readily with newly forming igneous rock – and less permeable rock that doesn’t see as much hydrologic influence (gabbro). Interestingly, this transition zone rock is also observed in ophiolites or oceanic rock that has made its way onto continents through a process called obduction.

I spend most of my time thinking about continental crust, which has a different composition than oceanic crust and therefore different properties. I was; however, able to draw parallels regarding how certain thermal and mechanical properties are affected by zones of transition within these different types of crust. With this idea in mind, Dr. Ferré and I were able to discuss elements of our research that may be complementary and forge out a tentative plan for future collaboration.

We happily discussed our respective projects between each of the exciting races at the Keeneland track. All the while I sipped on a Keeneland Breeze (not quite a Mint Julep) and we all did some crowd-observing (no extravagant hats, though).

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A Journey to “The Gateway to Hell”

I mentioned before that I traveled to Iceland this past summer. I saw a lot of seriously incredible geology on that trip so the locale is likely to manifest in many posts.

On our second full day in the country, we went north from the Ring Road to visit the Hekla Volcanic Area. Hekla – also known as “The Gateway to Hell” – is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. After at least 250 years of dormancy, the first recorded eruption of the volcano occurred in 1104. Since then it has had more than twenty significant eruptions, with the last one occurring in 2000. Hekla is also unusually aseismic (it doesn’t produce earthquakes) and activity only starts about an hour or less before an eruption. Considering it took more than 30 minutes to drive to the parking area and we spent about 3 hours on the volcano itself, we would have certainly not survived in the event of an eruption. We were, of course, well aware of this. The Icelandic government; however, graciously reminded us of our poor decision with the following sign.

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Sign warning us of the danger involved in climbing Hekla

Abandoning all common sense we went for the summit: and we had an amazing time. Along the way, I observed some of the interesting features of this volcano. Hekla is a stratovolcano, a name given to volcanoes with cone shapes that result from layers that form from material associated with alternating types of eruptions. Some eruptions produce gentler lava flows because they are composed of minerals that yield lower viscosities (like warm maple syrup). Others eruptions are incredibly violent and produce explosions of high-viscosity lavas as well as tephra, pumice, and thick ash. I found features associated with both types during my visit.

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Flow patterns are seen in hardened lava and are likely associated with a lower-energy phase of eruption.

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Blocky flows and tephras from explosive eruptions.

Hekla is also part of a ridge where volcanic material erupts through large fissures. These fissures run parallel to and are associated with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, or boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates where new oceanic crust is generated as the Atlantic Ocean continues to open.

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Ridge of volcanoes seen from Hekla proper. The different colors are from the different types of iron oxides that make up the lavas.

Standing at the summit, enjoying the views and consuming some well-earned snacks, I began to contemplate the continual evolution of the landscapes beneath my feet. The mere impermanence of the entire island is simply awesome. With every eruption, the volcano’s surface is formed anew but the peak upon which I stood exists as an amalgamation of several such events. As a geologist, I’m often presented with information that forces me to think along time scales which are much longer than what most people are used to and can be challenging to comprehend. However, it’s also refreshing to observe first-hand the rich dynamism of our ever-changing planet.

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View from the summit of Hekla.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve come to learn to be mindful of these experiences as they occur; but also, reflect on the fact that the processes I’m observing are everlasting. Perhaps also, it is why I feel a little less hesitant to engage in activities where death seems a little more imminent.

“Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

About three years ago I read the book The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. In it, the author describes the life of Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian scientist and explorer who strongly influenced a young Charles Darwin. During this time, I was seriously contemplating pursuing geology for my life’s work but had yet to delve into the subject fully. I found solace in the storied history of Humboldt, a man I viewed to possess traits of being that I someday wished to emulate.

A master of myriad disciplines, Humboldt characterized what I believe was the paragon life of the natural scientist unbound. Not only did he engineer his own instruments and culminate varied and complex – yet complete – datasets on some of the most magnificent but previously undocumented features of the natural world, he also excelled at public relations and scientific policy. Humboldt’s arduous push to explore the Americas and connect with its peoples inspired generations of civil development and social and environmental progress which to this day continues to be colorful and complex.

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Alexander von Humboldt Monument, El Ejido, Quito, Ecuador

I came to regard Humboldt as a being by which I felt inspired. I’ve recognized my tendency to identify esteemed individuals after which to model my actions as a trend which has followed me through my life. In fact, in my earlier years of self-reflection, I often deemed myself too impressionable: a quality I didn’t always embrace as beneficial to my development. I have since learned that seeking role models to guide me through first absorbing desirable traits and then incorporating habits into my own identity has helped me grow into a better scientist.

One of the journeys of Humboldt that I found particularly striking was when he climbed Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador. The volcano’s great height historically placed its peak as the highest in the world; however, modern instrumentation and exploration led to the discontinuation of that idea. Chimborazo is unique; though, in that its summit is the farthest point from the center of the Earth. Interestingly, our home planet takes the shape of an oblate spheroid: not a perfect sphere. The equator is slightly “fatter” and because of that, features on the surface near the so-called equatorial bulge extend to greater distances from the center. Thus, the summit of Chimborazo – which is at the equator – juts out from the center even farther than that of the majestic Mount Everest.

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Chimborazo

It is for this reason I seek to one day climb to the top of Chimborazo. With this goal in mind, a little over one year ago I journeyed to Ecuador to set my sights on the volcano. I’m still learning the techniques of climbing big mountains, so I did not attempt to summit on this trip. I did wish to get a “feel” for the environment; however, which I achieved. I took a trip to climb to what was at the time the highest accessible point on neighboring Cotopaxi. On my way, I saw Chimborazo in-person for the time and was overwhelmed with awe. From that moment I knew that my actions going forward would be in pursuit of the ultimate goal of standing atop that peak.

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Cotopaxi at dawn from Parque Metropolitano, Quito, Ecuador

I now leave you with a short poem I wrote to culminate the themes of my story here. I also hope that you too can find something worth “[looking] well to each step; and from the beginning [thinking] what may be the end”.

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Note: quote (and title) are by Edward Whymper, the English mountaineer who is credited with the first ascent of Chimborazo.

A View from Thirty Thousand Feet

One of the things I enjoy about geology is the utility found in drawing upon seemingly disparate pieces of information to better understand the interconnected processes at work on the Earth. In the business world, this is often described as the “30,000-foot view”. Thirty thousand feet is chosen because that is close to the approximate altitude at which most commercial jet aircraft cruise. Just imagine yourself in an airplane, looking at the landscapes passing beneath you, and forming ideas about what you are seeing with this unique perspective. Those ideas are certain to integrate a great deal of information. This approach to forming ideas is particularly useful in geology – which some refer to as “the ultimate interdisciplinary science” – because one gains a level of understanding consistent with the Earth as a complex system.

This sort of thinking sometimes permeates into other aspects of my life. For example a couple of weeks ago I read an article about how scientists for the first time created three-dimensional images of certain quasiparticles (phenomena that occur when particles are affected by interactions in a system such that those particles behave as if they are different types of particles in a vacuum). What they imaged are known as skyrmions, which have been proposed as a model for particles that make up the nuclei of atoms (like protons and neutrons). It is useful to understand skyrmions because they have implications for electronic materials like semiconductors that we use in computers. I hadn’t previously heard of skyrmions and I found myself intent on learning more about them. This could be because my first thought was, “Skyrmion? That’s a strange name that reminds me of Iceland”.

 

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Icelandic cows are necessary for excellent quark.

Iceland is a popular destination for geologists because so many geological phenomena are on display in such a small area. I suppose one could say Iceland gives the geo-tourist a lot of “bang for the buck”. I’m a pretty typical geologist, so I myself vacationed to Iceland this past summer. While I was there I took a liking to a dairy product known as skyr. I later learned that although skyr reminds me of yogurt, it is technically a cheese. It is classified as such because it is made from coagulated milk solids (cheese) rather than thickened milk (yogurt). The proteins in milk normally repel each other and stay suspended in liquid but when certain bacteria are introduced it makes the milk more acidic which causes the proteins to clump together into curds which are used to make cheese. In yogurt, the elevated temperature that the milk is subjected to during production breaks up the proteins which results in thickening.

When I was researching this for myself I also learned that skyr is a particular type of cheese known as a quark because it is made using bacteria that thrive in moderate-temperature environments. The word quark reminded me of the subatomic particles that combine to make composite particles like protons and neutrons. Thus, I arrived back at my initial subject of investigation: particle physics.

Also, in case you are wondering if skyrmions are named after a dairy product, they are not. The person that first proposed them as a model was a British physicist and mathematician named Tony Skyrme.

“It matters that you don’t just give up”

Those who know me well know that I come from somewhat humble beginnings. That’s not to say that my upbringing didn’t serve me well in terms of observing first-hand the value of a strong work ethic. My parents slaved tirelessly working multiple full-time blue-collar jobs to afford to live in a relatively affluent area so that their children might realize a better future, which we now gratefully enjoy. Most significantly, this impressed upon me a system of values to which I can attribute much of my more recent accolades.

As a result, however, when I was growing up it was difficult for me to relate to peers much more fortunate in terms of financial security. My worldview was somewhat removed from those with ample time for more scholarly pursuits. However, in my teen years, I met a young man who introduced me to poetry, high art, music, and literature. This man – who I ended up marrying several years later – taught me the value of using the resource of one’s mind as a tool to gain new perspectives. Exemplary of this was when he lent to me his copy of “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking.

In my coming-of-age, I was constantly trying new things out. I was seeking an identity that felt genuine. One matter upon which I was often ruminating was that of my faith. Further, I was uncertain how my religious beliefs – or lack thereof – fit into the context of a flourishing interest in subjects based on pure reason. It was therefore timely for me to delve into Professor Hawking’s book. In “A Brief History of Time”, he provides not only an excellent review of how we understand the physical universe but also comments on the implications of making connections between faith and science. It is this part that helped me come to terms with my own definition of God. Professor Hawking, in short, inspired me to generate a unique meaning for faith – one much broader than what I had learned from traditional religious practice and one based on my experience as a student of logic.

To better understand the connection upon which I landed, I quote the philosopher Alan Watts:

“[Faith] is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

In the wake of Hawking’s death, I remember this as one of the more impactful experiences of my youth. I also look to the future with further inspiration to share my science in ways that a greater number of citizens can relate. Stephen Hawking excelled at this, and I can only hope to be a fraction as successful in my own pursuit to become a scientist and science communicator.

As the great physicist said,

“Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

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Why I Want to be a Geologist

I just submitted an application for the AIPG William J. Siok Graduate Scholarship. As part of this application, I prepared an essay on “Why I Want to be a Geologist”. I am sharing that essay here because I feel that – at least for those less familiar with the joys of our wonderful fields of study – it can be pretty inspiring to hear about how scientists discover their passions.

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Machhapuchhre peak from Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC), Nepal

In his National Book Award-winning story, The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen writes of his time trekking through the landscapes of the Himalaya-Tibetan orogenic system:

“The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not.”

However, through my investigation of this system, I feel somewhat poised to proclaim that there is nothing simple about it. I cannot disagree with the narrative immediately following; however, when Matthiessen writes,

“The mountains have no ‘meaning’, they are meaning; the mountains are.”

There is something strangely alluring about mountains that I’ve been drawn to as far back as my memories reach. My appreciation likely stemmed from being geographically situated within a short distance of the Appalachians during my formative years. I enjoyed time during my youth staring off into soft blue ridges coalescing on the horizon. Later – as a teenager – I enjoyed new-found freedoms of independent travel.  I went westward, where the soft blue ridges materialized into rising rock monoliths that I hastily placed my feet upon. There began my everlasting bond to that mountainous landscape and the earth from which it formed.

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The James River near Roanoke, VA

While I continued to spend my free time in the great outdoors appreciating these geologic phenomena, I did not immediately see in geology the potential for a life’s work. Therefore, as an undergraduate with little notion of what I was seeking in a career, I simply focused my efforts on using my quantitative skills and drive to solve complex problems to position myself in a role with the potential to improve the lives of others. I was first drawn to polymer science and engineering, which I studied because I am fascinated by the physics of that class of materials and believed that improvement in practices related to end-uses could have broad societal impact. I found; however, that I did not wish to be so narrowly focused.

Therefore, I began seeking redirection and after graduation was fortuitously encouraged to participate in an NSF-funded field study directed at introducing traditionally underrepresented groups to the geosciences. I experienced disbelief when first experiencing the educational platforms afforded as a student of geology. The natural laboratories to which I was introduced included maar volcanoes, exposed laccoliths, wild gypsum caves, dinosaur footprints, and fault-block mountain ranges. I was completely blown away: not only by the variability of features; but also, the new understanding of processes that led to their formation.

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Me standing atop the Castile Formation (varved anhydrite/calcite mixed with organic matter) in the Guadalupe Mountains

Since that experience, I began to crave deeper perceptions of the natural environments which I had long enjoyed. Further, I was inspired by the realization of interdisciplinary nature of geology. This exciting revelation led me to truly submerge myself in broad geologic knowledge. I also began to see connections between my previous studies and geologic disciplines such as structure and tectonics. I, therefore, decided to tie together my interests and experiences by pursuing graduate research in continental orogenesis. In this capacity, I now study the complex, interdependent processes that result in large-scale orogen evolution as well as travel into the field to experience the world’s most magnificent features. Geology has allowed me to comprehend things I never thought possible about phenomena that I could have never imagined.

In short, I am truly inspired by my craft. It brings to me a sense of wholeness; a sense of familiarity; a sense that I have found my place. This feeling isn’t surprising considering the oft-quoted adage by John Muir:

“Going to the mountains is going home”