Research, internship and football help shape senior’s future

| Judy Berthiaume

Editor's note: Since this story was first published, Dan Brennan has been awarded full funding to complete his master's degree in field-based geology studies at Idaho State University.

When Charles Dickens wrote the line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” he could have been talking about Dan Brennan’s first couple of weeks as a Blugold.

An athlete with aspirations of playing football for UW-Eau Claire, Dan arrived on campus a couple of weeks before his freshman year to begin the football tryout process.

“A week into practice, I’d never been more sore in my life,” Dan says. “I was getting my butt kicked every day in practice and couldn’t learn the playbook. I called my dad and asked if he would pick me up; I wanted to go home. I was miserable. I hadn’t even gone to a class yet and I already hated college. I didn’t think I’d make the team, I had no idea what I wanted to study and I hadn’t made any friends.

“Somehow my dad talked me out of it and I stayed. They made cuts a couple days later and I made the team.”

Four years later, Dan finished his collegiate football career playing alongside some of his best friends.

Football wasn’t the only thing that worked out better than Dan ever could have imagined in the months and years that followed those first challenging weeks of college.

Now a senior geology major with an emphasis in hydrogeology, the Prairie du Sac native will graduate in May, earning his degree in just four years while excelling as a student-athlete and University Honors student, and completing an internship and being part of an international research team.

“I was undeclared my whole freshman year,” Dan says. “I wasn't really sure what I wanted to study but I knew science intrigued me. My undeclared adviser set me up with Career Services, where I completed questionnaires that ranked my interest in different tasks. Geologist was one of my top career results every time so I enrolled in my first geology class sophomore year.”

Dan was quickly drawn to the camaraderie of the geology program, and he liked the opportunity to work and study outside of an office and classroom.

Toward the end of his sophomore year his college career took another giant leap forward when he was invited to join a research project led by Dr. Phil Ihinger, professor of geology.

“I was still a rookie in my geology studies so I worried I wasn’t qualified for this project,” Dan says. “That same year, I had an excellent senior geology mentor, Scott Wipperfurth, who’d been working on this research project for several years and walked me through the entire process.”

The research took Dan and his research team to the Swiss Alps for three weeks to conduct field work.

“We hiked all over Switzerland collecting samples, and we visited Italy and France,” Dan says. “Our research consisted of analyzing the hydrous impurities of individual quartz crystals using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, which measured the absorption of an infrared spectrum that was shot through the crystal. In the 1990s, a group of Swiss scientists determined there was a distinct temperature gradient in the host metamorphic rocks across a traverse of the Alps. This makes the Swiss Alps the ideal place to look at the effect of temperature on the uptake of these chemical impurities.”

Dan’s research primarily focused on the high-temperature crystals that were distinguishably void of hydrous impurities, something never before documented in hydrothermal quartz crystals.

Given his role in the research, Dan was a secondary author on a poster presented at the 2014 Geological Society of America’s meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.

He also shared the research findings at the 2015 Provost’s Honors Symposium, and was the lead author of a poster presented at the 2015 North Central Geological Society of America’s meeting in Madison. 

Dan credits the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and its director Dr. Karen Havholm, along with the International Fellows Program, with making the research experience possible for him. With ORSP and IFP supporting various parts of the research project, Dan joined the team as a paid student researcher, allowing him to earn money while continuing to focus on his studies.

“The fact that this was a paid research position allowed me to participate in this life-changing research trip and opportunity,” says Dan, noting that the IFP supported his field work in Switzerland. “I wouldn’t have had time to conduct research, keep up my with classwork and play football if I had to get a part-time job as well. If I had to work, I would have had to pick among the three; the paid research allowed me to do all three.”

The project helped him hone his research and presentation skills, and it also taught him how critical attention to detail is in science, Dan says.

All of those things will help him be successful in his future geology career, he says.

Dan had yet another life-changing experience this summer when he worked as an environmental intern with a Unimin Corp. at its Mankato, Minnesota, facility.

As an intern, Dan worked with the environmental affairs department on environmental, monitoring, permitting and compliance. He also spent time in the field alongside Unimin's sedimentary geologist.

“I experienced many facets of the non-metallic mining industry ranging from environmental, to geological, to operational,” Dan says. “This real-world work experience has helped me gain an understanding of the economic and environmental considerations that are taken into account when mining industrial sand as well as what career path is the best fit for my strengths and interests.”

The internship is influencing how he sees his future.

“Energy is going to be a critical and changing industry over my lifespan, and I’d really enjoy applying what I’ve learned through research, internships and classwork in an energy-orientated geology career,” Dan says. “Several of my internship mentors were big supporters of me pursuing a master’s degree." 

Thanks to the geology department’s partnerships with industry, Dan also was able to travel to Texas for a frac sand supply and logistic conference, an experience that gave him opportunities to network with potential future employers.

Now in his final semester as an undergraduate student, Dan says he’s more thankful than ever that his dad convinced him to tough out those first weeks of football camp years ago.

“While the first weeks were the toughest, by the end of it I had more than 100 other men I could count on for just about anything,” Dan says. “I had friends and a great support system before the majority of my freshman classmates had even moved to campus. Over four seasons, I probably played with more than 300 teammates and developed relationships with coaches, graduate assistants, student assistants, athletic trainers, equipment managers, community supporter and athletes of other sports teams who I met when sharing facilities.”

Those relationships gave him the strong support network he needed to be successful as a Blugold.

Being a student-athlete is challenging given the many and varying demands on them, says Dan, who also was one of the football team’s representatives on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

“It’s challenging to find the time and energy to balance everything that’s required of you,” says Dan, who also challenged himself academically through the Honors Program. “I learned a lot about who I am as a man as well as what it means to be part of something bigger than myself. These lessons will be with me for life.”

While he’s excited for his future, leaving UW-Eau Claire will be tough, Dan says.

“I got paid to do research in Europe, I interned with a great company and I scored a collegiate touchdown,” Dan says. “I’m studying a major I love, and I’m preparing for a future career that excites me immensely. Hopefully, I’ll get accepted to grad school.

“Now I’m going to graduate and move away. I’m going to miss labs in Phillips Hall, Saturday afternoons at Carson Park, morning workouts at McPhee, pasta block meals in Davies, cold winter walks over the footbridge and warm summer tube rides under it. But I’ll be back someday because UW-Eau Claire always will have a special place in my heart.”

Photo caption: Blugold Dan Brennan in a UW-Eau Claire geology lab