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Geology major embraces variety of opportunities after transferring to UW-Eau Claire

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Tara Lemke began her college career at a university that eliminated its geology program shortly after she arrived. A professor there suggested she look at UW-Eau Claire. Following the advice, she transferred and now says it was the best decision she ever made. She’s embracing all the opportunities she’s finding in and outside of her classrooms. This summer, she’s spent time in New Mexico as part of a field camp and now is in Upper Michigan completing an internship. On campus, she collaborates with faculty on research. (Submitted photo)

The old saying about when one door closes another door opens certainly is true of Tara Lemke, now a junior geology major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“My dad and I have been collecting rocks for as long as I can remember,” Lemke says. “When senior year hit in high school and you were supposed to decide about your future career, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do. I knew a geology degree would be challenging but it also would be fulfilling in my future.”

At the time, UW-Eau Claire was not even on her collegiate radar, says Lemke, who grew up in Stockbridge. Instead, she enrolled in another UW System school, where she planned to study geology. However, before she even completed her first semester, the university announced it was cutting some of its academic programs, including geology.

The announcement upended her college plans but not her plans for her future career.

Certain that geology was the path she wanted to follow, she decided to transfer. One of her professors encouraged her to look at UW-Eau Claire, assuring her that it offered the high-quality geology program she was seeking. She followed that advice and soon found a new academic home.

“It was honestly the best choice I could have made looking back at it,” Lemke says of transferring to UW-Eau Claire.

As a Blugold, she has found the challenging coursework she expected in a highly regarded geology program. But she was surprised to also find many outside-the-classroom experiences that are helping her learn and understand geology in new and interesting ways.

“These experiences outside the classroom show you how to find and see what you learned in the classroom,” Lemke says.

After all, there is only so much you can learn about geology — and rock formations — from textbooks and photos, Lemke says.

Providing real-world experiences to prepare students for professional life after college is a priority in the geology department, says Dr. Kent Syverson, professor of geology.

"Our field camp courses in New Mexico and Montana help students apply concepts learned in the classroom to the real world, and in doing so, students refine their critical thinking skills," Syverson says. "Internships do a similar thing, but in a workplace setting, where students are paid very well to learn new things, build their professional network and help a company or agency succeed."

Approximately two-thirds of the geology students are placed in environmental internships, Syverson says.

"Because of the Responsible Mining Initiative at UWEC, we place many students in high-quality paid internships, something that is unusual for an undergraduate geology program," Syverson says.

Lemke's summer activities reflect the kinds of outside-the-classroom experiences Syverson says make Blugolds stand out after graduation. She says UW-Eau Claire created learning opportunities that will help her succeed in her future studies and her future career.

Among the highlights of her summer was participating in the geology department’s summer field camp in New Mexico.

“I mean, the whole experience was eye-opening,” Lemke says. “The landscape was beautiful even if it was hot. There were just a lot of little moments that just kind of stick with me. When we crested the first mountain on the third day, I had this sense of accomplishment.”

She also got a sense of how unpredictable nature can be as she found herself dodging raindrops in the desert one day and another day standing in the middle of a dust devil, a strong vertical whirlwind.

Being out in the field helps her see how all the knowledge she’s acquiring in her coursework fits together, Lemke says.

“Field camp really lets you apply everything that you have learned up to that point,” Lemke says. “It is important to be able to read the signs of the rock to know what is happening geologically in the area. It is a demanding experience mentally, and it tests your ability to focus on a task. While it’s fun, field camp ultimately is an experience focused on learning and improving.”

After her summer field camp ended, Lemke began a summer internship at the Eagle Mine in Marquette, Michigan.

As an intern, she is learning how to analyze underground geology and collect samples, which are sent to a lab to be assayed for quality and content. She also does some daily data entry in the office and works on logging the drill core that they collect from the mine.

All of those are skills she will need in the future.

“So far, the internship has been going really well,” Lemke says. “It is interesting to look at the whole mining process and how it relates to production.”

When she’s on campus, Lemke is involved in a research project, working alongside Dr. Robert Lodge, assistant professor of geology.

Research prepares students for graduate school and jobs after graduation, as well as for internships, Syverson says.

Lemke and Lodge have been researching the mineralogy and geochemistry of the Lynne sulfide ore deposit in Oneida County. Lemke presented the research at the spring Institute on Lake Superior Geology meeting.

Because the Eagle Mine is also a sulfide deposit, Lemke's research made her an excellent candidate for Lundin Mining’s geology internship, Syverson says.

“This research has given me experience analyzing hydrothermally altered rocks, which is an incredible resource that I will use throughout the rest of my career,” Lemke says.

While she’s not yet decided on a specific path she hopes to follow after her graduation, Lemke says the learning experiences she’s having as a Blugold will help her be successful regardless of where her first job takes her.

“I hope to work at a mine in the future or in geologic modeling software,” Lemke says. “I hope to travel for my job and would likely jump on any job in the geologic industry to make that happen. I know I will be ready wherever I go.”