A Taste of the Real World…in the Baja Basins

Undergraduate Research Students Experience Life as Professional Geoscientists

You’ve heard the stories of eager college graduates applying for their first post-baccalaureate jobs. They have the grades, they have the knowledge, but they don’t have “at least three years of experience” working in their field. Disheartening, right?

Fortunately, there’s undergraduate research for that. Undergraduate research – along with unique internship opportunities – gives students hands-on experience working in their field of study, and the opportunity to explore potential careers and enhance their professional communication skills.

Still, it’s not every day you hear about undergraduate researchers traveling abroad to conduct geological fieldwork.

Unique Experiences in Undergraduate Research

During the spring 2017 semester, 14 students from universities across the United States and Mexico had the opportunity to participate in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Baja Basins Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. The students, along with project team leaders of the Baja Basins REU, conducted geological fieldwork in Baja California Sur, Mexico, for three weeks. Since early July, the group has reconvened in Kansas City to analyze field samples in the UMKC Department of Geosciences laboratories.

In the lab, students examined the tectonic, volcanic and sedimentary evolution of the Santa Rosalía basin, as well as geochemical processes surrounding the development of economically significant minerals in the area. Their goal was to:

  • Characterize the ore fluids and mode of emplacement in the Santa Rosalía basin.
  • Analyze the fault structure and stratigraphy of the Santa Rosalia basin in order to document the environment of deposition, basin architecture, and determine phases of deformation.
  • Determine the uplift and deformation history of the basin by studying the geomorphology and stratigraphy of the terrace deposits.
  • Map the volcanic rocks found in the basin in order to understand their timing and connection to ore development.

In other words, “we got to experience what professional geologists’ jobs are like,” said Humboldt State University senior Oliva Helprin. That experience also included a three-week stay on a Baja Basins copper mine and, while in Kansas City, a three-week stay on the UMKC campus and a final research presentation to program mentors, UMKC geosciences faculty and representatives from the Mexican Consulate of Kansas City, the REU project sponsor.

At the conclusion of the program, students hosted a poster presentation on the lower-level of the Miller Nichols Library at UMKC. The presentation served as a practice run for the researchers before presenting their work at professional geological meetings later this year. Faculty and mentors provided feedback on the students’ projects and challenged them with additional questions to test their understanding of their research findings.

Diversity in Geosciences

The REU program is a three-year National Science Foundation-funded collaboration among UMKC, the University of California-Davis, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, Universidad de Guanajuato and the Minera Boleo copper mining company in Santa Rosalía. The program is directed by UMKC geosciences professor Dr. Tina Niemi. Dr. Cathy Busby, professor emerita, UC-Davis, serves as co-director of the REU program.

“We wanted to target underserved minorities for this program,” said Niemi, pointing out the diverse makeup of the research group, including mentors. The group consists of 10 American students, four Mexican students, women and veterans. The majority of program mentors are also women.

“I am lucky because I had two amazing mentors who were both women, and of diverse ages,” said Naomi Acuña, University of Baja California senior, adding that she doesn’t often see women in the geosciences field. Acña is a native of Michoacan, Mexico.

The NSF also requires that half the students come from universities with limited research opportunities, or no PhD program.

“We largely recruit from the west coast and midwest, but applicants come from all over the United States,” said Niemi. She said program mentors look for balance when selecting from the pool of applicants. Two UMKC students participated this year.

Niemi noted the REU program also functions as a paid internship. When students arrived in Kansas City, Niemi conducted workshops like “How to be An Intern,” and “How to Write a Scientific Abstract,” before students began putting their presentations together.

“I came into this program thinking it’s a great way to get a job,” said UMKC geosciences senior Aaron Banes, but he got so much more, such as an understanding of different people and cultures. “I’m gracious for the opportunity to participate in this program. It has taught me a lot.”

University of Baja California senior Karla Gabriela Álvarez Ortega, mentioned her initial thoughts about participating in the program.

“At first I was so afraid of the language barriers,” said Ortega, a native of Baja California. “I didn’t think my group partners would understand me,” but, she said, their group had no problem coming together. Ortega said opportunities like participating in the REU program aren’t available in Mexico, so she is glad to have had such an experience.

Having just completed the third year of the REU program, Niemi said she will likely apply to renew the grant through the NSF. However, she said, instead of splitting $500,000 of grant funding between three universities, she would like to try leading the program completely out of UMKC. Those plans have yet to be outlined.

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