Home is Where the Geology Is

Last semester, my students were assigned a project titled “Hometown Geology” in which they were to find (1) a topographic map and (2) a geologic map of an area of interest. They used the maps to learn about the geology of the selected area; specifically, how topography and geology are related as well as identify rock types, geologic features, and reconstruct a geologic history.

One of my students chose the area of Oak Creek Canyon in Sedona, AZ. This student did well on the assignment and little did they know, they were helping me familiarize myself with the geology of area I would soon visit for a hike.

This past Christmas Eve, a couple of friends and I embarked on a journey north of Phoenix to hike Sedona’s tallest peak, Wilson Mountain. One of the friends joining me had one hike left of a Northern Arizona six peak hiking challenge she was unofficially participating in so we chose this hike to do together. It was purely coincidence that one of my students also took an interest in Wilson Mountain, which rises high adjacent to Oak Creek Canyon in Sedona.

Also a coincidence is the fact that the street I grew up on, the first 18 years or so of my life, was called Oak Creek Place. I have fond memories from my youth there on Oak Creek Place and I’m taken back to those memories whenever I’m near Oak Creek Canyon. So I suppose you could say my student’s “Hometown Geology” assignment reminded me of my own hometown.

Oak Creek Canyon is a beautiful river gorge located between Flagstaff and Sedona in Northern Arizona. Oak Creek carved Oak Creek Canyon along the Oak Creek Fault. The Oak Creek Fault is a normal fault that makes it so that the west side of Oak Creek Canyon (the foot wall) is about 600 ft higher in elevation than the east side (the hanging wall). An east-west cross-section through Oak Creek Canyon is shown below. Here you can see how the rock layers have been tilted and offset.

East-west cross-section of Oak Creek Canyon (source).

The Oak Creek Fault originally formed about 65-75 million years ago, during a period of compression in western North America. Later (about 25 million years ago), the region began to extend and related to this was outpouring of a series of basalt flows through Oak Creek Canyon along Oak Creek Fault. The fault was later reactivated and offset of these basalt flows occurred.

The mountain we hiked up – Wilson Mountain – is on the west side of Oak Creek Canyon and is higher in elevation due to this faulting activity. The peak of Wilson Mountain rises to a little over 7,000 ft in elevation, which makes for a rewarding hike and great views of Wilson Canyon (south of Wilson Mountain) and its surroundings!

View of Wilson Canyon from Wilson Mountain Overlook. The red colored rocks are the Supai Group sedimentary rocks labeled in the above cross section and the white colored rocks are the Coconino Sandstone. In the foreground are boulders of the Neogene Basalts that cap Wilson Mountain.

Plate tectonics: a little of everything

Overall, I consider myself a generalist (despite that I’m going for a PhD right now). That means I like to know at least a little bit about a lot of different things. There are also specialists, or people who know a lot about one or a few related things. I’m also a bit of a specialist in that I’m seeking to know a lot about my dissertation research but my dissertation research combines many concepts that span multiple disciplines.

For example, I use computers to understand how plate motion affects the outermost layer of the earth. That means I need to know about computers, software, and coding in addition to the geological concepts that I use. Further, the geological concepts I need to know combine mathematics, physics, chemistry, and materials science. The physics of the processes that result in mountains are described mathematically using numerical models for heat and material transport. Also, the way stress affects rocks (which occurs due to plate motion) depends on chemistry or mineral composition and is a function of temperature. Then there’s the geology which incorporates a lot of subdisciplines like computational geodynamics, structural geology, isotope geochemistry, geomorphology, seismology, and mineral physics, to name a few.

So when people ask me what I do, I often have a different answer depending on the situation and the person asking. Basically, I have a lot of options for responses. But if I want to put it into one term: I say I’m a tectonicist.

It works because Plate Tectonics is the grand, unifying theory of geology. That is, it ties together all of the aspects of earth science, which makes it pretty darn important.

This week, my lab students have elected to learn about plate tectonics. They cast votes – unbiased by me – and chose my favorite topic. So I’m using this blog to teach them (and you!) some basics.

The simple idea behind plate tectonics is that the lithosphere – the outermost portion of the earth which includes the continental and oceanic crust and the uppermost mantle – is broken up into rigid sections called plates that “float” on a weak part of the mantle called the asthenosphere. Below the plates, the mantle convects – similar to how water convects in the pot when you’re boiling it on the stove – and this convection results in motion of the overlying tectonic plates.

Plates move relative to each other in three different ways at plate boundaries. They can push into each other – which is known as a convergent plate boundary, they can move away from each other – which is known as a divergent plate boundary, and they can move past one another – which is known as a transform plate boundary. The interactions at plate boundaries result in many geologic features and phenomena that are observed on earth. For example, mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes are all related to motion at plate boundaries. Sometimes, some of these features occur inside of a plate instead of at a boundary but that’s due to a different phenomenon you can learn about here.

Different types of plate boundaries and where they occur on earth.

My lab students will learn about the different features associated with these types of plate boundaries as well as the hazards associated with each.

Hopefully, I’ve piqued your interest in plate tectonics and if you want to learn more, continue reading my blog because plate tectonics has it all and is always on my mind!

From mountains to microscopes

I like pretty things, which is why I’m drawn to geology as a discipline. There is beauty to be found in many aspects of the science – at all scales.

You may have guessed that I’m a fan of large scale formations that result from large-scale processes (mountains! tectonics!). But I’m also a fan of the micro-scale – things that can be observed using a microscope.

Geologists call the special optical microscopes that they use petrographic microscopes and the study of rocks that uses such a microscope is called petrography.

To study rocks under the petrographic microscope, it has to be cut thin enough for light to pass through. Geologists use something called a thin section – or thin slices (usually 30 microns or 30/1,000,000 meters thick) – of a rock or mineral sample. Thin sections are usually mounted on a slide with adhesive and measure 26 x 46 mm but the size and shape can vary depending on the application. Also, there are different ways to treat thin sections, like embedding them with different media, staining them to highlight different minerals, or coating, covering, or polishing them differently so that they are compatible with different types of light or microscopes. If you want to learn more about making thin sections see this excellent website.

Petrographers use polarized light microscopy to observe features in the thin sections. Polarization acts as a filter to isolate waves of light along particular planes. If you think of the way a guitar string vibrates up and down along the length of the string it’s similar to how light propagates through space. The difference is that there are different orientations of the waves and polarized light takes out some of the orientations. The graphic below illustrates how light travels in directional waves and how the polarizer works to filter it.

Cartoon of how polarization affects light.

Polarizers are used by petrographers because the minerals that make up rocks exhibit an optical property called birefringence which means the mineral looks different depending on the nature of polarization. The way the mineral looks under different polarization (plane-polarized versus cross-polarized, for example) can be used diagnostically – that is, it is useful for identifying and characterizing the mineral and it’s history.

Plane polarization is when only a lower polarizer is used and cross polarization is when a lower polarizer and an upper polarizer (also called the analyzer) are used. Properties that can be observed using plane-polarized light microscopy include opacity (degree to which a material transmits light), color, pleochroism (when a material changes color as it rotates relative to the polarizer), refractive index (the speed of light in the material relative to that in a vacuum), and relief (the difference in refractive index between a material and its surroundings).

Under cross-polarized light, minerals reveal very interesting properties, many of which are slightly too technical to describe in detail here. One example; however, is called twinning and it occurs in plagioclase and some other minerals (see below).

Twinning in plagioclase, source.

The textures and patterns that can be observed in thin sections of rocks using a petrographic microscope and not only beautiful but also aid in scientific investigation. For example, petrologists use microscopy to study things like the metamorphic and deformational history of rocks. Further, chemical analysis can be combined with mineral identification from thin sections to determine the environmental conditions under which igneous rocks form, which can be useful in understanding magmatic processes.

So whether you’re looking at a rock through a microscope or observing global patterns there’s always something beautiful and interesting to see.

How to Pay for Graduate School in Geology

Money has never been an easy subject for me. Growing up, my parents were often stressed out about finances and were constantly searching for ways to make ends meet. Needless to say, I didn’t have a college fund set up so I had to figure out how to pay for my own education from the start. I saved some money by first attending community college and then transferring to a four-year university but I still had to figure out a way to pay for it all on my own.

I was fortunate to be eligible for Pell Grants which helped a lot. I also took out some federal loans that are partially being forgiven because I worked for the Federal Government for a few years prior to attending graduate school. Of course, one of the things that came to mind when thinking about leaving my job to return to school was how I was going to pay for it (or more correctly, have it paid for!).

So if you’re thinking about graduate school, or have already started graduate school, you may have realized that funding options are a bit different from what you may be used to from undergrad. The majority of graduate students in STEM fields in the U.S. are funded in one of the ways I discuss below: through fellowships, assistantships, scholarships, grants, or (forgivable) loans or some combination. Personally, I have received at least one from each category during my graduate career.


Fellowships are probably the most desirable funding option for graduate students because they allow you the freedom of working on a project that you can propose yourself and they don’t have to be repaid. Basically, you aren’t tied to a particular PI’s research grant which gives you more flexibility in terms of a research topic. They also sometimes pay a little better than some of the other funding sources. Because of their attractiveness; however, they are also often highly competitive.

I give a list of some below with links to each website. Fellowships have eligibility requirements which vary and typically require a project proposal which means you need to have research goals prior to applying. Applications also include a personal statement and letters of recommendation as well as other materials like short essays. Here is a list of some that I came up with but make sure you do your own search (for example, on university scholarship and financial aid websites) to see if you can find others that you may be eligible for.

American Association of University Women Fellowship

Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship

National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP)

National Research Council Research Associateship Programs

Ford Foundation Fellowship

Fulbright US Student Program

GEM Fellowship

Hertz Fellowship

Quad Fellowship

Smithsonian Institution Fellowship


In this post, Callan Bentley does a great job explaining assistantships. I’d recommend reading what he wrote, but to sum it up: there are two types, teaching assistantships (TAs) or research assistantships (RAs). With a TA, you’re obligated to teach or assist in teaching a course, typically at the undergraduate level. With an RA, you’re obligated to do research that is tied to a grant that has been awarded to your research advisor or a collaborator. That means the research project you work on has already been proposed and funded so it can be less flexible than a fellowship in terms of the type of research you end up doing.

Also, TAs can be offered through the department and the department might have limits on the number of years you can serve as a TA (my department has a two year limit but that’s sometimes negotiable). If you plan on staying in academia and focusing on teaching over research, you may want more TAs than RAs.

Lastly, my advisor is a strong believer in having each of his students serve at least one term as a TA to get some teaching experience prior to finishing graduate education. I think he has the right idea considering that as an academic (even if your focus is research), you’re almost certainly going to need to teach in some capacity.


Scholarships are great and that once they are awarded, there are few restrictions on what you can use them for and there is no service to exchange for them. However, more often than not they have lower dollar amounts than other sources of funding so they are best thought of as a way to supplement other funding sources. There are A LOT of scholarships out there, again with different eligibility requirements and varying levels of competitiveness. I list a few here to get you started but I recommend performing your own search as well. Make sure to check your university and department websites too.

AIPG William J. Siok Graduate Scholarship

Association for Women Geoscientists Scholarships

Harriet Evelyn Wallace Scholarship for Women Geoscience Graduate Students

RMAG Foundation Scholarships

Society of Exploration Geophysicists Scholarships

Forgivable Loans

If you can avoid loans, I recommend you do that that because they usually have to be repaid and it can be hard for a lot of people to get themselves out of student debt once they accumulate it. Forgivable loans are slightly different, however. Forgivable loans are loans that once you meet some set of criteria, can be forgiven (that is, they don’t have to be paid back). One example includes federal loans under the the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. There are others too, like my university’s Gastwirth Graduate Student Loan. That one is forgiven if you secure a job outside of industry following graduation. Make sure you check your university, college, and departmental funding source websites to look for these.

Graduate Research Grants

Many organizations offer small grants to graduate students to support costs associated with thesis or dissertation research. I provide some examples below but you also want to look at organizations that are specific to your school or program (like graduate student unions, for example). Travel grants to support students presenting research at a conferences are also usually available through these same organizations. Below are some geology-specific ones.

AAPG Foundation Grants-in-Aid

AEG Foundation Funds

AGeS(3) – Advancing Geochronology Science, Spaces, and Systems

American Geophysical Union Grants

Cave Research Foundation Grants

Evolving Earth Foundation Student Grant Program

GSA Graduate Student Research Grants

Mineralogical Society of America Grant

Sigma Xi Grants in Aid of Research

Hopefully this serves as a good starting point for you on your journey to funding your graduate education. Also, please realize this is not a complete list and you may have to do quite a bit of your own research to find ones that are best suited to you as an individual.

Good luck!

Over the Sleepy Mountains

Surely, many of you have read the short story “Rip Van Winkle” by the American author Washington Irving. If not, the story recounts a man named Rip Van Winkle falling asleep in the Catskill Mountains of New York for 20 years.

This weaving of mountains and sleep seems to be a common premise of the literary world – as well as other crafts like music and the visual arts. I imagine due to the serenity felt when gazing upon soft ridges, for example. However, when I think of the mountains of Arizona – near my home – little about them makes me think of sleep.

I wrote previously on how hiking and climbing in different regions makes for entirely different experiences. Now I’m going to discuss some of the geoscientific reasons for these variations, focussing first on what makes the “sleepy”-type mountains so gentle. I’ve chosen to create a series of posts that focus on what I feel impacts my experiences the most: topography, vegetative cover, and climate.

Starting with topography: it’s a pretty broad term but generally refers to the spatial arrangement of physical features in a landscape. There are many related characteristics of mountainous landscapes like relief, prominence, and elevation that are more specific, so I’ll define those here.

Elevation is height of a topographic feature relative to something else – usually the mean elevation of the surface of the oceans (mean sea level). Relief is the difference in elevations (between a high point and low point) within a landscape. This can be expressed numerically by subtracting the elevations of the lowest point in the landscape from the highest point in the landscape. The larger the difference in elevation, the higher the relief. Prominence is similar to relief in that it is a measure of relative elevations in a landscape; however, it refers specifically to the height of a particular feature (like a mountain) relative to the surrounding terrain. Therefore, a mountain with great prominence is much higher than the other features in the landscape surrounding it.

So when I think of the mountainous landscapes of my youth – the “sleepy mountains” of Appalachia, these factors like elevation, relief, and prominence typically take low values. In fact, the highest elevation in Virginia – the state in which I grew up – is at Mt. Rogers and is a mere 5,729 ft (1,746 m). In Arizona – where I live now – the highest elevation is at Humphrey’s Peak and is more than double the elevation of Mt. Rogers at 12,637 ft (3,852 m).

And while Virginia has a varied topography with a lot of changes in elevation (and therefore relief), the relief is still less dramatic than some of the world’s other mountainous regions. For example, the average relief in Teton Range of Wyoming is ~3,000 ft (~900 m) – and while there are examples of these kind of changes in elevations in some parts of the Appalachians, the overall relief is relatively low.

When it comes to prominence, I return to the examples of Mt. Rogers (Virginia) versus Humphrey’s Peak (Arizona). The prominence of Humphrey’s Peak (6,039 ft (1,841 m)) is more than double that of Mt. Rogers (2,449 ft (746 m)). That means that while you’re in for a challenging hike in either case attempting a summit of these peaks, Humphrey’s Peak is definitely going to be more difficult.

Another factor that impacts my experience while hiking is the climate and the vegetative cover present in the landscape. The Appalachian mountains – particularly the central region where I grew up – are very lush and heavily vegetated. This actually makes geological field work a little more difficult in this region because exposure to the bedrock is more limited! So in regions with more vegetation, the paths are more likely to be covered in dirt and the trees are more likely to offer shade. These factors lead to a more pleasant outdoor experience in my opinion.

So why is this the case, that the central Appalachians are “sleepy”? Simply put, the reason is that the Appalachian mountain ranges are relatively old. The major mountain building event that led to the most of the uplift forming the Appalachians began about 325 million years ago and the mountains that formed as a result have been eroding since. Not only does this play a role in reducing the overall elevation, relief, and prominence but also, because collisional orogenesis in the region has ceased, the area is said to be “tectonically quiescent” or inactive and therefore there has been ample time for the landscape to adjust and for large plants to root and grow.

So if you ever find yourself with the urge to take a long nap in the great outdoors (hopefully not as long as our friend Rip Van Winkle!) perhaps head on out the the central Appalachians and enjoy some gentle, sleepy mountains. Just beware of black bears!

Scion of the Wild

Tomorrow marks two years since my father passed away unexpectedly. This event was very difficult for me – and I still find myself having to cope with his premature exit from this world. But the anniversary of his death has me thinking about what he contributed to my life as well as ways in which I learned to deal with some of his shortcomings.

My father, Steven Sparks and me on my first Christmas, December 1989.

My father taught me a lot – I learned from him through observation the value of strong work ethic and determination to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”. I come from somewhat humble beginnings – at least in comparison to the life I’ve built for myself up to this point. As an example, I was the first in my family, which includes my parents and two older brothers, to earn a high school diploma and pursue higher education. Since then, my youngest sibling later achieved this feat as well, but I was the first.

Because my parents were less educated, they ended up having to work multiple low paying jobs to be able to afford raising us children in the relatively affluent area of northern Virginia. I therefore observed two young, hardworking parents trying to make ends meet while growing up which translated into me perceiving idle time as a luxury afforded to those better off than myself for many years.

I therefore filled my plate with responsibilities and stretched myself thin: working three part time jobs while going to school full time my first few semesters of college, taking 20+ credits semester after semester during undergrad, and more recently taking on extremely difficult problems that may be better suited to with someone with more experience or better resources.

This personal aspect has payed off in many ways though and I’m grateful for the lessons learned from my experiences thus far. I have suffered “burn out” on more than one occasion, and as I’ve mentioned before, my mental health has not always been the best. This was something I learned to recognize later also affecting my parents. That meant that growing up, my father wasn’t always as available to me as I needed him to be.

One thing that helped me though was seeking support from those outside of my immediate family. I often received positive attention from teachers because I performed well in school. I therefore continued to strive for academic excellence and collected numerous mentors in a strong support network. In addition to my family, these people have shaped me into the person I am today and I am extremely appreciative of them.

But now that my father is gone I sometimes find myself wishing I could tell him things about my life. Unfortunately, there’s no real substitute for that but I do think of him often, and imagine that he could be with me and share my experiences.

Last month, I came across a letter he wrote to my grandmother when I was about 5 years old. He said a lot in the letter that moved me, but the most meaningful thing I read was – in his words of course – his belief of me having great potential. Since then and going forward I try to realize the potential that he saw in me and live in a way in which he would be proud.

A Class of Our Own

I grew up on the East Coast: in Northern Virginia right outside of Washington, DC. It’s one of the reasons I came to love mountains. The Appalachian mountains were part of the landscape where I grew up and I could even see the Blue Ridge in the distance from my childhood home.

As I got older, I came to enjoy hiking through these mountainous landscapes – mostly in Shenandoah National Park – where the Appalachian trail runs through North to South (or South to North depending on where you start).

The New River in West Virginia, May 2022. Much like what I was used to growing up, these mountains are like gentle rolling hills with lush vegetation.

I remember reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods as a teenager and imagining section hiking the Appalachian Trail, as I had already done a large portion of it. This never came to fruition but I still got to know that trail (at least the central portion of it) pretty well.

This sort of shaped my idea of what hiking was like for many years. I read about the treacherous northern portions of the Appalachian Trail in Bill Bryson’s book but never experienced it first hand. It wasn’t until I was an adult did I venture off to other places with different types of hiking and realize that the mid-Atlantic portion of the Appalachian mountains is pretty forgiving and – for the most part – quite tame.

Hikers generally break terrain up into Classes. These come from a rock climbing scale for difficulty called the Yosemite Decimal System (or YDS). The higher the Class number, the more difficult and dangerous the hike or climb (and Class 5 climbing is what is traditionally known as rock climbing and requires ropes and other specialized gear for safety reasons – of course you can ignore this suggestion if you’re Alex Honnold).

Class 1 is the easiest, and is consists of what most people think of when they go hiking with some hiking boots, a small daypack and some water. It doesn’t require specialized gear and trails are marked clearly. This is also the lowest risk class.

When trails are less clear or route-finding is required, and you may encounter loose terrain called scree (finer grained) or talus (larger rock fields), you’ve reached Class 2. While you may want a map for navigation purposes, you still don’t need any specialized gear here.

Class 3 is also sometimes referred to as scrambling as you typically need to use your hands and feet to traverse this terrain. Sometimes, the route may also be exposed or be close to large dropoffs where a fall could result in serious injury.

Summit attempt in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado, July 2017. Rachel is hiking up a Class 2 talus slope up to some Class 3 scrambling which then becomes sections of exposed Class 4 climbing.

Class 4 is more common for bigger mountains where mountaineering know-how like how to use ropes for crossing sketchier sections is required. The hiking part of Class 4 is typically fairly easy and non-technical; however, there are other factors like a higher level of exposure and the potential for injury on unstable terrain.

As mentioned previously, Class 5 is technical rock climbing and is further divided into sub-levels of difficulty. If you’ve ever been to a rock climbing gym in the US you’ve probably seen the route ratings that also use the YDS.

So getting back to my experiences in hiking, I typically only encountered up to Class 3 hiking in my formative years. Class 4 came onto the scene when I ventured westward to places like Colorado and Wyoming where the mountains are a lot more rugged than the mid-Atlantic Appalachians I experienced. I also rock climb now and have on and off for about six years, so I have a lot of experience with Class 5.

In my next post I want to talk about the differences in what hiking was like growing up and what hiking is like for me now, here in Arizona mostly, as well as the geological reasons for the differences.

Holding Court

This is the second in a series of posts about Zion National Park

Zion Canyon is a canyon through which the Virgin River – a tributary of the Colorado River – runs. All of what I explored during my trip to Zion National Park was in Zion Canyon, only a small fraction of the park itself.

In April, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive – the road through Zion Canyon – is only open to the park shuttle which runs from the Visitor Center (stop 1) in the South to the Temple of Sinawava (stop 9) in the North. Stop number 4 is called the Court of the Patriarchs, after a grouping of rock towers named the Three Patriarchs (after the biblical Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).

Three Patriarchs (Abraham to the left, Isaac in the center, and Jacob on the right in the background) and Mount Moroni (right foreground).

The Three Patriarchs are composed of a rock unit called the Navajo Sandstone. If you recall the first post in this series – about Checkerboard Mesa – you’ll have heard of Navajo Sandstone. Navajo Sandstone is at least about 200 million years old but may be slightly older and was deposited over a period of about 5.5 million years. It is a sandstone (sedimentary rock) and it is the thickest stratigraphic unit in Zion National Park. The major rock layers are represented by a stratigraphic colum shown below.

Stratigraphic column depicting rock layers that make up formations in Zion National Park. The layers are stacked in order of deposition with the uppermost layers being the youngest (deposited last) and the lowermost layers being the oldest (deposited first). Also depicted are the types of fossils and sedimentary structures that can be found in the units. The diagonal lines in the Navajo Sandstone represent cross-beds. For more information on the Navajo Sandstone and other units see this NPS page from which this column was copied.

As mentioned in the above caption, the Navajo Sandstone is known for its prominent large-scale cross-bedding. So what is cross-bedding exactly? Well, it’s a sedimentary structure (feature of a sedimentary rock) that forms when layers develop at an angle with the primary bedding plane. An example of this in the Navajo Sandstone is given in the picture I took while hiking Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park.

An example of cross-bedding in the Navajo Sandstone along the Angel’s Landing trail. The horizontal lines are the bedding planes and the diagonal lines are the cross-beds. The cross-beds result from sand dunes deposited and shaped by wind flowing right to left in this case.

The Navajo Sandstone represents a remnant of an ancient field of sand dunes in a desert that existed during the early Jurassic – about 200 million years ago. This vast desert landscape extended across the Colorado Plateau region and beyond, approximately spanning from eastern CA to central NM and from Idaho to the Mexico border. This was the largest known sand desert in the history of our planet!

Cross-beds from sand dunes are significant because they tell us about the depositional environment; namely, the direction of transport for the sand grains that eventually formed the rock. For more about this see the diagram below.

A diagram depicting the formation of sand dunes and associated cross-beds. The cross-beds point downward in the direction of wind travel (left to right in this case). Credit: NPS

Stay tuned for more on Zion National Park and its geologic wonders!

Activate yourself

This post is a little different in that it is about mental health so I just want to make it clear that I’m not a mental health professional and everything here is either something I learned from a mental health expert or is based on my personal experiences.

If you feel like your mental wellness could use some work, you might start with a mental health hotline or visit to your student health clinic or campus counseling center.

I’m a graduate student living in 2022 so naturally I suffer from a few mental health disorders. Not that we all do, but research suggests I’m not alone. Also, sadly, it’s not something that many programs or supervisors address effectively.

So what is one to do? That’s a hard question: one I’ve been trying to navigate for years but I’ve been taking a few steps focused on improving my mental health recently and I’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years so I thought I might share some of my experiences in case others can benefit. Now, I’ve had a lot of support: family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and of course – professionals. The roles of these people can’t be overstated; however, there are some things that I’ve had to figure out independently – the first of which was how to utilize resources available to me. So if you feel like your mental wellness could use some work, you might start with a mental health hotline or visit to your student health clinic or campus counseling center.

Through my mental wellness journey, one of the tools I picked up along the way comes from a type of therapy known as CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s called behavioral activation and it has to do with the way actions impact emotions, or in CBT-speak: how behaviors impact feelings.

See, I was having this problem – brought on by my clinical depression – where I couldn’t find the motivation to do the things I enjoyed, which included both recreational activities and work activities.

I told my therapist about this and we tried a few things but the one that really worked for me in the end was behavioral activation. So here I’ll describe what it is and how to use it.

I’ve often equated behavioral activation as a clinical term for the adage: “fake it ’til you make it” but that doesn’t really capture the entirety of the concept. There are many layers this tool which are outlined in a way that makes sense to me below. But, if you’re interested in the TL;DR version: behavioral activation is simply the practice of initiating a task prior to achieving the motivation to do it. Essentially, you start doing the thing and the motivation follows.

Here’s how I see it:

1. Engage your self-awareness

In my opinion, the first step is to learn about yourself and what really makes you tick. This may seem like an easy task, but for me it took many years of practice and trying different tools to find what works. I know it can also be really scary for a lot of people to look inward and those of us with past traumatic experiences might risk retraumitization so make sure you have a good support network in place before attempting this.

The tools I mention include mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga, grounding techniques, affirmations, observations (internal or external), and even online assessments. There are other therapeutic techniques that I’ve tried under the supervision of professionals as well. I suggest you contact one if you are interested in trying those.

Of these techniques, my favorite one is journaling; specifically, bullet journaling.

Bullet journaling works for me because it is quick and efficient but it also gives me an opportunity to be creative. I’m not the type to sit for hours and reflect on every aspect of my day: every event that occurred, emotion felt, thought generated, etc. But with bullet journaling, I can make aesthetically pleasing lists or charts that I quickly fill in each day to keep track of things in my life like habits, goals, tasks, how I spend my time, and what my moods are. When I look back on my entries and spreads that are separated into days, weeks, months, and even years, I can analyze the trends and more clearly see what’s going on with me.

2. Identify your core values and set goals

A core value is a fundamental belief: a personal priority or foundation for conduct. Examples include honesty, integrity, justice, community, inclusion, the list goes on… By taking the time to figure out what your core values are you can then focus on ways in which to initiate actions that incorporate those values into your personal and professional life. Core values are important because they assist in making meaningful changes that actually persist.

In order to do this, it is helpful to set goals. Goal-setting can be tricky but common guidance suggests that goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound). Basically, you should write details about your goal, include metrics to target, ensure they are possible for you and practical to achieve, and have built-in deadlines.

3. Make a plan and carry through

Planning basically consists of taking a big-picture goal (aligned with your core values of course!) and breaking it up into smaller specific actions with their own dedicated timelines (mini-goals if you will).

Once you’ve made a plan, carry through with it. This is the most important step in behavioral activation. You must do the task whether or not you have the motivation to do it. Many of us think that motivation will come to us if we wait for it. But, the foundation on which technique is built is that we should begin to feel better after performing actions. Therefore, the action will likely precede the motivation.

4. Reward yourself for achievements and use setbacks as lessons

Make sure you make explicit efforts to reward yourself for your achievements as it reinforces positive behaviors and negates some of counterproductive thinking associated with things like depression.

On the other hand, if at first you don’t succeed: try again (with a different approach maybe). Make sure you reflect on what didn’t work and perhaps modify your plan if necessary. What matters most is that you keep trying.

5. Practice makes progress

Like many things in life, these techniques require practice to achieve mastery. Skills develop over time and you shouldn’t expect that results will be immediate. You can try to gauge your success based on whether or not you feel you are working towards living a life of value. Your emotions may ebb and flow and your motivation may go through cycles as well but if you keep at it, you should notice slow changes for the better!

A Place of Peace

I have lived in the American Southwest for a little over three years now but before I moved here I used to imagine myself spending time in this vast desert landscape visiting each of the awe-inspiring public lands. Now, I’ve been known to be a bit of an armchair traveler; I like to indulge in books about incredible places, usually while riding some form of public transportation into work or school. So back East, I would envision climbing the seemingly endless cracks in the sandstone at Indian Creek after reading High Infatuation by Steph Davis, meditating under the serene formations at Arches National Park at sunset after reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, or being completely humbled and crying immediately upon first sight of the Grand Canyon after reading J.W. Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (which actually happened, but I’ll save that for another post). This led to my calling westward to a place that seemed so drastically different from where I was and where I had spent most of my life.

So it may come as a surprise that while I’ve lived here a good amount of time now, I’ve yet to recreate in many of these places. However, little by little I’m attempting to change that so about a month ago I took a short trip to southern Utah to finally visit Zion National Park.

Checkerboard Mesa, Zion National Park

My companion and I entered from the East and were struck first thing by a feature known as Checkerboard Mesa. The distinctive pattern after which it is named is due to cutting of sub-horizontal cross-beds that formed when ancient sand dunes were deposited and then lithified or transformed into rock. These features are useful to geoscientists because they give information about the depositional environment. Specifically, one can discern – among other things – the direction of flow of the medium that carried the particles of sand (in this case wind). Nearly perpendicular to the horizontal plane, are vertical fractures that are caused by a type of physical weathering known as freeze-thaw cycles. Essentially, water infiltrates spaces within the rock and if the temperature drops low enough, the water freezes and expands. This is followed by the reverse process of thaw and – subsequently – contraction when the temperature rises again. Temperature cycling therefore results in stresses being exerted on the rock which in turn leads to fracture. Because the fractures cut across the sedimentary strata, we know that they formed after the beds were deposited. This is an example of a so-called cross-cutting relationship.

Overall, the combination of processes makes for a pretty neat looking first glimpse of this National Park!

Until the next piece of this place of peace (Zion), I’ll leave you with some Edward Abbey:

“Each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful.”

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire