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Research, internships and faculty mentors prepare new grad for future success

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Jacob Erickson has known since elementary school that he wanted to study geology in college. As he prepares to graduate, he says his geology professors at UW-Eau Claire gave him a college experience that exceeded his already high expectations.

Jacob Erickson was still in elementary school when he discovered his passion for geology, thanks to a favorite teacher and a dad who … well … rocks.

“Ever since fifth grade, I’ve wanted to pursue a degree in geology, although I did not know exactly what that meant then except for looking at rocks and understanding them on a deeper level,” says Erickson, who will graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this month with a degree in hydrogeology. “I give all the credit to the great Mrs. Betty Cockriel, who introduced me and many others to these natural sciences, planting a seed of curiosity that has grown into a tree of intrigue and enthusiasm.

“On top of that, my dad ‘found’ a beautiful geode in a rock garden and gave it to me as my first rock in a collection that’s still growing to this day.”

While his hometown teachers and family inspired his early interests in the natural sciences, it was UW-Eau Claire’s geology faculty who helped the Maplewood, Minnesota, native find his niche and a future career path within the geology field.

“My connection with the geology department faculty is something that I would have never expected when first coming to UWEC, but it has changed my life for the best,” Erickson says. “The geology program here at UWEC is fantastic in many ways because of the professors.

“For me, personally, the mix of tough but intriguing professors, along with great students to work with through research and other opportunities, is something I will cherish even after I graduate.”

Faculty regularly include students in meaningful research, help them find and excel at internships and support them as they find jobs after they graduate, Erickson says.

Dr. Sarah A. Vitale, assistant professor of geology, and Dr. J. Brian Mahoney, professor of geology, are among the faculty who made a positive impact on his time as a Blugold, Erickson says.

“Dr. Vitale is one of those professors who challenged me to think beyond what has been taught in her hydrogeology classes, to understand the bigger picture rather than a few lines of an equation that needs to be solved for an assignment,” Erickson says.

Vitale and Mahoney have served as his mentors and teachers, says Erickson, who has worked alongside both professors on research during his undergraduate years.

“Without these two professors, I wouldn’t be the fledgling hydrogeologist I am today,” Erickson says.

Vitale says Erickson is a committed student and future hydrogeologist who has taken every opportunity to expand his field and lab experiences while continuing to excel in his coursework.

"I don't think Jacob has ever said 'no' to trying something new, even if he wasn't sure how well it fit his interests," Vitale says. "As an undergraduate and a budding researcher, this is an important quality to help expand one's skill set and refine interest in future pursuits."

The faculty’s commitment to supporting students during and after their college careers is among the reasons UW-Eau Claire’s geology program is among the best in the country, Erickson says.

“This department is known for having one of the largest student-faculty research experiences at the university and possibly in the U.S.,” Erickson says. “The department is also known for its ability to assist students in obtaining and even retaining internships throughout their geology experience and landing them full-time positions immediately after their undergrad.”

Erickson says he tried to make the most of the many opportunities, looking for ways to use the knowledge he gained in the classroom in the real world through research and internships.

For example, as a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources intern, Erickson spent time gathering data from 15 streams in western Wisconsin, information used by the DNR to better understand the sediment and water flux throughout the western Wisconsin watershed.

The internship helped him improve his field techniques and build stronger connections with other Blugold researchers.

Erickson also was selected to participate in the Undergraduate Water Research Fellowship Program, giving him an opportunity to be part of an ongoing research project.

As a research fellow, Erickson helped gather field measurements of different water quality parameters and assisted with additional lab analysis to better understand an emerging contaminant, phosphorus.

“Understanding how groundwater flows and how natural and anthropogenic sources of phosphorus interact with this specific groundwater system is the central idea of this research,” Erickson says. “There are many other extensions to this project, so I won’t go into too much detail, but just know that Dr. Vitale has a lot of amazing stuff going on and will continue far into the future.

“What I took away were great introductory field and lab techniques that are massive highlights on my resume.”

While his primary focus always has been his geology studies, Erickson says he appreciates the other opportunities he found on campus that allowed him to stretch his thinking in new ways and to connect with people outside of the geology department.

For example, as a student in the University Honors Program, he enrolled in classes on topics that fell far outside the sciences, Erickson says.

“The Honors Program offered many interesting classes that either helped to distract me from the monotony in hardcore science classes or provided a new experience that is unique from other classes offered on campus,” Erickson says.

A short but meaningful stint working at TV-10, the on-campus television station run by students, also was a highlight of his outside-the-classroom activities on campus, Erickson says.

“My brief time with TV-10 was the most exciting and fun time I had on campus,” Erickson says.

While his time with the station was short, Erickson says it was an experience that introduced him to new and interesting people, which, he says, is one of the most valuable things students can take from their time in college.

“Open your door to meet other people,” Erickson says of his advice to younger students. “This can either be literal — open your dorm door to let other people come in and hang out with you — or figuratively, since you should open up a bit more and broaden your horizons with new and interesting people you’ll meet at UWEC.”

As he prepares to graduate, Erickson is looking for his first job in a career he hopes will be centered around contaminant fate and transport, as well as the chemistry and modeling involved in contaminants once they're released into the environment.

Eventually, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in aqueous geochemistry, which will expand upon his contaminant understanding.