The stress and the joy of undergraduate research

It's that time of year again. The plotter is out of paper and the students have new haircuts and clothes I've never seen. It must be time for senior thesis presentations. In about an hour and a half, the senior geology students will be giving 15-minute talks (the same length as at professional geology meetings) to a room full of friends, professors, parents, recent alums, and curious local geologists. They're probably nervous now, but when they come out, they will have accomplished something.

Their senior thesis work really started back in January of 2008, when they started scrambling for topics in my junior writing class. Since then, they've written proposals, collected their own data (in the field, in the lab, or both), argued with their adviser about what it means, collected more data, struggled to make sense of conflicting results, pondered the implications of their results, written a thesis paper, put together a Powerpoint presentation, listened to criticism, revised their Powerpoint slides, practiced speaking to their adviser and their friends, and probably spent a lot of nights worrying about how it will all go.

I love this. Well, not the stress part, but the rest of it. I've known these students since they were freshmen or sophomores, and I've watched them go from learning the names of rocks to creating new knowledge. Right now, they've each done a piece of completely new work. Some of them have seen rocks that nobody else has seen (which is why I want that table with GPS coordinates in the thesis). Some of them have results that are surprising, and that will lead to other research. Some of them have experience that could lead directly to a job (though with the recession, it will be more difficult than it has been in the past few years).

I don't tell them this unless they ask, but I think I learned more doing undergraduate research than I did in all of graduate school. I struggled with defining a project, I learned to identify interesting rocks in the field, I read the literature and figured out what techniques would work on my rocks, I looked at thin sections and struggled to figure out what I was seeing, I contacted strangers at other institutions and got permission to use their microprobes, I dealt with failed equipment and long trips for nothing, I collected data and checked it and refocused the electron beam and tried again, I plugged numbers into a pocket calculator to figure out what my data meant, I made up my own ways of graphing my data, I wrote an abstract and a paper and made a poster and gave a talk.

And when I got to grad school, I already knew that I could do all those things. My results weren't exciting (and one person who saw my poster told me that my conclusions were wrong), but I knew how to figure out how to do things for myself, and how to finish something. I think those skills would have helped me, even if I hadn't gone on to graduate school and to advising my own students.

For the rest of the world, the Council on Undergraduate Research will be putting on its annual Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C. on May 5. I'm not sure if the presentations are open to the general public - they are aimed at showing lawmakers what undergraduates do these days, and convincing them to support science. Locally, some of our students will be presenting their work one more time, at next Friday's Four Corners Geological Society meeting. (If you're in the Durango area and want to come, send me an e-mail and I'll tell you where to find us.)

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Just curious...did any of these rocks that no one has ever seen before include Proterozoic sillimanite bearing felsic gneiss?

By oblate sphereoid (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

No - my student was working on a shear zone between amphibolite and quartz pebble conglomerate. My student last year worked on some rocks that had sillimanite in them, but they weren't very deformed (contact metamorphism with very weak deformation).

I've seen Proterozoic sillimanite-bearing felsic gneiss in the Sangre de Cristos and near Salida, and I think on a field trip in New Mexico. We've got a different suite of the older Proterozoic rocks here, though, plus the younger conglomerate/quartzite/phyllite. (Equivalent to the Ortega quartzite in New Mexico and maybe to rocks as far away as the Baraboo quartzite in Wisconsin.)