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Getting Involved in Undergraduate Research

A Suzuki Jeep-like vehicle with a bunch of no-good geologists inside.
The “Jeep” from my undergrad research days. Photo by Steve Dornbos.

Almost 20 years ago, I was lucky enough to be a student participant in two undergraduate research programs – the Keck geology consortium and Caltech’s SURF program (full disclosure: I didn’t participate in all aspects of the SURF program). The Keck program in particular involved a summer spent mapping and studying gabbro [1] on the island of Cyprus – a fragment of old ocean crust. That project introduced me to independent fieldwork, paleomagnetism, study design in geology, and a large network of friends and mentors. Some members of that network would later become collaborators and my Ph.D. advisors. Many of my friends became geoscientists.

If you are an undergraduate science student and have the chance to do a research project, I can’t stress how important it is to take that opportunity. Whether or not you end up in science, you develop experience, skills, and personal connections that will help you later in life. If nothing else, you get to find out if a particular area of science is right for you. While this experience is associated with a bit of a sacrifice – particularly for many of my students who have family and/or work obligations during the summer – there are some programs that will work with you to make it easier. Some offer a stipend, and others might be located near where you live or work and have flexible hours.

How do you find a good program? Here are some national programs in geoscience and environmental science that I recommend. If you’re going with a different one, I recommend talking to the faculty members involved to get a feel for how they mentor their students, how many students are involved, and what they think you’d get from the program. Also talk to former students if you can.

  • GeoCorps: Paid internship opportunities to do geoscience in the National Parks and other federal sites. Requirements and application dates vary.
  • The Summer of Applied Geophysics Experience through Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico. A fantastic hands-on experience in environmental geophysics in the field. Requires a year of physics and calculus. Application date unknown.
  • The Keck Consortium is still around! Although it’s run by faculty from liberal arts colleges, students from elsewhere have applied. However, outside applications are not an option for the upcoming cycle due to budget cuts. Requirements depend on the project. Application date unknown.
  • The UNAVCO Research Experiences in Solid Earth Sciences for Students: learn about GPS, LIDAR, and other geodetic (earth-measurement) techniques in the field. Requirements include “some” physics, math, and geoscience, but are not very strict, as far as I can tell. Application opens November 16, 2015.
  • Undergraduate Studies in Earthquake Information Technology through the Southern California Earthquake Center and the University of Southern California. This program is unique because it focuses not just on seismology, but on earthquake hazard communication, and on forming interdisciplinary teams to build ways (often online) to communicate earthquake hazard effectively. Application dates and requirements unknown.

Please let me know about other opportunities in the comments. I’ll try to keep this list up to date when I find out more information about the programs above!

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