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Passion, research and mentorship shape geology student

Amanda Doherty started her college education as an English major, but with ties to science stemming from the influence of her high school chemistry teacher, she switched to geology and is studying geochemistry and sedimentology.

“I took a leap of faith with geology,” Doherty said on switching her major. “I wanted to be doing something that is current—an emerging field—and I found that with geology.”

Since taking that leap, Doherty was awarded a Daniel Raaf Scholarship, two faculty-student collaborative research grant awards, a C.W. Fetter Endowed Research Fund Grant for her research and is in the University Honors Program.

Doherty has applied what she’s learned in the classroom and during fieldwork through a research project with her research adviser, Dr. Eric Hiatt —“Bioerosion of Terrestrial Gastropods,” based on samples she collected in Bermuda.

Doherty’s project and honor’s thesis topic involves exploring the role microbes have on taking apart snail shells, as a controlled microcosm and model for rocky surfaces throughout the tropics.

According to Hiatt, microbes likely play a big role in breaking down the rocky limestone surface of islands and in cycling the carbon that is tied up in the rock back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, which is connected to global climate.

“So, these little microbes may teach us something big about how carbon is cycled and even may play a role in the Earth’s climate,” Hiatt said.

“Research is exciting because I learn how the process works,” Doherty said. “I know how to pull together ideas, pick a question, write an honors thesis, write a grant proposal and present my research.”

For Doherty, it’s having the support of her professors and mentorship to talk about future possibilities that she said helps her be comfortable with pursuing new opportunities in geology.

“The geology professors are incredibly understanding—you can always ask them questions,” Doherty said. “Their attention is on us and they seem to be incredibly passionate about their fields. They really want us to succeed.”

Doherty is mentored by professor Hiatt, who shares tips on how to be successful after graduating from UW Oshkosh—in graduate school and in a career in science.

“I teach my students that in science it is important to develop good questions to guide their research,” Hiatt said. “I mentor Amanda by teaching her how to prepare microscope slides of fossil and rock samples, and I help her with laboratory work including scanning electron microscopy.”

Hiatt also meets with Doherty to discuss results, interpretations and how to write effectively, which in addition to hands-on learning through fieldwork, prepares UW Oshkosh geology students for graduate programs.

“Doing a research project can be a life-changing experience for an undergraduate science student,” Hiatt said. “It can make the difference in developing a student’s research interests and talents, and igniting the spark of understanding and interest, but it also can make the difference whether they get accepted into graduate school or not.”

“Geology changed my life, and the fact that the department is small is nice,” Doherty said. “It feels like a community.”

Doing fieldwork through the Geology Department has allowed Doherty to apply what she’s learned in the classroom and really dig deep for answers.

“It’s crucial that you do fieldwork,” Doherty said. “You learn things so well and see it from another perspective. It’s the difference between telling someone the stove is hot and touching it.”

Fieldwork is at the core of geology and is the core of our geology degree program, Hiatt said.

“Most students will remember and learn much more by experiencing the phenomenon in the field, whether it be at Devil’s Lake near Baraboo, or snorkeling over a coral reef in Bermuda or standing on a major fault in Utah,” Hiatt said.

A trip to Utah allowed Doherty to fulfill what she called every kid’s dream—excavating dinosaur bones.

“Fieldwork like that is critical to being a geologist,” Doherty said. “You don’t learn things in the classroom like you do in the field.”

Doherty stressed how diverse among the sciences geology is. “It’s not just rocks. It’s not gemstones. It’s being outdoors, using chemistry, physics, biology, math and really every branch of science,” Doherty said.

“Every time I learn about another relationship in our geology lectures, it never stops being exciting,” Doherty said. “I learn about places I’ll be able to travel to. The more I learn, the more I know geology is the right fit for me.”