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Down to earth geology students excel at national conference

In late September, Colorado Mesa University seniors Nicole Mejia-Mendoza and Alex Jaquez-Caro found themselves locked out of their Airbnb nearly 600 miles from campus. They had just arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, and were feeling out of their element. Aside from the challenges that come with navigating a new city, they were preparing to present their student research at the 2019 National Geological Society of America conference (GSA). They were nervous, enthusiastic and slightly terrified.

Months earlier, Mejia-Mendoza and Jaquez-Caro were deep in Glenwood Canyon hiking high above the Colorado River gathering ancient sediment deposits. The duo were collecting samples so they could analyze specific minerals to discover their age and where they came from.

“It’s a feature I grew up with but knew nothing about,” said Mejia-Mendoza.  

“I would drive through Glenwood Canyon and see the steep walls and wonder what process it went through to get developed,” said Jaquez-Caro.  “I wanted to know the history of the Colorado River: how big it was, how old it was and what it was dumping all those years ago.”

After taking geology electives, Mejia-Mendoza and Jaquez-Caro each switched their areas of study to the geosciences program. A few short years later, they were officers of the Geology Club, winning student awards, tuition scholarships and conducting their own research.

They collaborated with Professor of Geology Andres Aslan, PhD, and his colleagues at New Mexico Tech and the U.S. Geological Survey to test the data they collected from Glenwood Canyon. They worked with Aslan in the geochemistry labs at New Mexico Tech University to prepare sanidine-mineral samples for 40Ar/39Ar dating. They used sanidine to determine the age of the river sediments found in the canyon.

“We had grains that ranged from 11 million-years-old to billions-of-years-old. We narrowed our research to the 20-40 million year range,” said Jaquez-Caro.

That research earned the two CMU students a spot in the GSA conference alongside some of the brightest minds in the field, and the university's Unconventional Energy Center helped them get there. 

“They did the field work, they did the lab work and they delivered a high-level academic presentation next to graduate students and professors from all over the world,” said Assistant Professor of Geology Cassandra Fenton, PhD. “As undergraduates, they have publication records. They can put that on their resumes and that goes a long way.”

Like many departments at Colorado Mesa University, the geosciences program provides a number of essential learning classes. CMU professors are known for mentoring students outside the scope of course material and Aslan is no exception. He advocates for student research, and promotes student attendance at national conferences and helps them succeed in getting there.

“Professor Aslan checked their numbers, their graphs and helped with their presentation design. He offered a lot of meaningful feedback,” said Fenton.

By getting out of their comfort zone, Mejia-Mendoza and Jaquez-Caro learned valuable life lessons; like when one door doesn’t open, it might be because it’s the wrong house. They had pulled up to what they thought was their Airbnb, but the lock on the garage door wouldn’t work.

They worked through it, made it to the conference, and by the end of the weekend, they had learned more than just travel skills.

“Being in that professional setting gave us an experience students don’t typically get during their undergraduate degree,” said Jaquez-Caro. “I feel more confident with public speaking and answering questions.”

Confident not just with students, but with professors and other researchers. During their presentation, Jaquez-Caro noticed one of the men inquiring about their data was notable geologist Ed Keller.

“Ed Keller is the author of one of my textbooks that I use for my natural hazards class,” said Jaquez-Caro. “And there he was asking me about my research.”

Since going to the conference, Jaquez-Caro is considering applying to graduate school.  

In addition to Jaquez-Caro and Mejia-Mendoza, two other CMU students and two recent CMU graduates presented their research at the GSA conference: Tristan Bates, Josh Schlag, Jon Hutson and Eddy Martin. Aslan and Associate Professor of Geology Gregory Baker, PhD, presented at the conference as well.

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Written by Kelsey Coleman