Brittany KlemmPhoto by Kurt Burmeister

Brittany Klemm closely examines metamorphic rock structures in the Sierra Nevada.

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Academics

Geology Undergrads Get Graduate-Level Research Experience

Marnie SantoyoOct 17, 2012

Most people go to the Sierra Nevada to experience its natural beauty. Geology major Brittany Klemm '14, however, was drawn by clues in the rocks that might shed new light on how this ancient Californian mountain range came to be.

Funded by a Pacific Fund Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship, she and her professor, Kurt Burmeister, spent a week this past summer in the Desolation Wilderness area in the Eldorado National Forest. The two mapped exposures of Jurassic metamorphic rocks and Cretaceous granite near Mount Tallac. 

"In our department, we focus on providing students a hands-on, field-oriented approach to learning"

Kurt Burmeister
Associate Professor of Earth & Environmental Science

"The region's geologic history is hard [to understand] because the preexisting metamorphic rocks have either all been eroded away or are obscured by granite," Brittany says. "The site we chose, however, is one of the few areas where you can still see both the older metamorphic rocks and the granite, so we were able to map the contact between these two when we were out there."

For Brittany to get this kind of field experience so early in her undergraduate career is what makes the Earth & Environmental Science program at Pacific so valuable.



Emphasis on Experiential Learning

"In our department, we focus on providing students a hands-on, field-oriented approach to learning," says Kurt Burmeister, associate professor of Earth & Environmental Science in the College of the Pacific. "Textbooks distill geology down to the salient points. However, when students get out and look at real rocks and situations, they quickly find that there are an overwhelming number of things one can glean from rocks - an overload of data. Experiences like these help students develop the skills needed to identify the important things they will need to answer scientific questions."

As an active researcher,  Burmeister regularly invites students to participate in his research efforts in New York, Japan and now the Sierra Nevada. It was through one of these research trips at the end of her freshman year that Brittany had her first exposure to geology in the field.

"During that trip, I was able to pick up certain skills that are vital to research in general - mapping, note taking and general observations in geology," Brittany says.

Graduate-level Experience...As a Junior

The mapping expedition Klemm and Burmeister took to the Sierra Nevada this past summer was on par with research experience reserved in most other universities for graduate level geology students.

"Brittany is one of those unique examples of a student who took to earth sciences and research after one semester of an introduction course, but she is not alone in her commitment to research," Burmeister says. "We have many fantastic students that undertake one- to two-year research projects in our department. We give our students a lot of autonomy when it comes to developing, funding, and conducting their projects. These experiences help them learn how to hit the ground running when they graduate."

The result: In the past five years, 21 undergraduate students in the Department of Earth & Environmental Science at Pacific have published abstracts and presented their results at the annual meetings of some of the most prestigious international earth science associations. Brittany herself is already the first author of an abstract that has been accepted for publication on research she conducted with Burmeister in New York. She will be presenting the results of this work at the annual meeting for the Geological Society of America in Charlotte in November.

She will be working on her new research project in the Sierra Nevada through the end of the summer of her senior year.

"I've been inspired by the relationships and ability to do research here at Pacific," Brittany says. "My intentions are to go to grad school and pursue my masters and doctorate and I feel with all this amazing experience, I will be well prepared for my future."