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Research shapes geology major's UW-Eau Claire experience

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Senior Katherine Langfield collects research samples in Little Niagara Creek on lower campus. Langfield, who will graduate in May with a degree in geology, says research has been a big part of her undergraduate education at UW-Eau Claire.

Undergraduate research has been a big part of Katherine Langfield’s college experience, but the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior geology major still was nervous about presenting her research for the first time during a professional conference this spring.

The Lake City, Minnesota, native need not have worried because her presentation earned her first-place honors in the Best Presentation category even though other presenters included graduate students. Langfield, who will graduate in May, was one of just five student award winners at the conference.

“I’m still in shock,” Langfield says of her success at the Wisconsin section conference of the American Water Resources Association, the premier meeting of water science professionals in Wisconsin. “This was my first presentation at a conference. I have presented posters before, but never given talks. And it was my first virtual conference, so I did not know what to expect. I was super nervous and intimidated. I was the only student, undergraduate or graduate, in the baseflow section and that only heightened my anxiety.

“Then, in the moment, I was able to just calm down and let all the times I practiced take over.”

Langfield’s presentation focused on her work as a member of a UW-Eau Claire faculty-student research team that is collaborating with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on research involving stream flow measurements.

For the project, Langfield collects monthly baseflow measurements at streams in north-central Wisconsin. The data is put into a DNR database where it can be used for different purposes such as quantifying the effect of farming and water withdrawals on the surface water of the region, she says.

In her spring AWRA presentation, Langfield shared information about the first two years of the regional water study project.

“Katherine has been involved in the stream flow project with me since it began and stepped into a leadership-type role on her own early on,” says Dr. Sarah Vitale, an assistant professor of geology who leads the project. “The project has continued smoothly largely due to her dedication, including helping to train new students who join the project. It has been a pleasure to work with her and she will be missed when she graduates.”

Langfield also works on a second research project with Dr. Phillip Ihinger, professor of geology and chair of the geology department.

That research involves experimental petrology relating to the study of natural and artificial silicate glasses, as well as a study characterizing historical glass trade beads from Michigan.

By working alongside faculty research mentors, Langfield says she has gained the kinds of knowledge, skills and confidence that will help her succeed in her future career.

“Research is a huge experience that’s shaped my time here,” says Langfield, who will graduate in May with a geology major and a creative writing minor. “Had I gone to a larger university, there’s a much lower chance I would have been able to get involved in research, let alone be first author, on projects as an undergraduate student. Research has taught me so many valuable skills, as well as given me direct application for what I learn in class.”

While Langfield always had an interest in the sciences, she was undecided on a major when she came to UW-Eau Claire.

She enrolled in a geology class her freshman year and knew within weeks that she had found the major that was right for her.

“I liked geology when I was younger but didn’t really see myself pursuing it because I didn’t know what types of jobs were available,” Langfield says. “I was undecided as a freshman but decided to take Geology 110 with Dr. Ihinger just to see if I was still interested. During the first outdoor lab to Little Falls, I fell in love with geology and changed to a geology major shortly after.”

The outdoor lab that convinced her to major in geology was the first of many meaningful outside-the-classroom experiences she has had as a Blugold, Langfield says.

Faculty in the geology department do a tremendous job of teaching in their classrooms but they also weave many real-world experiences into the program, Langfield says.

“For example, the department’s field camp in New Mexico was a phenomenal experience for me,” Langfield says. “Mapping in the desert for three weeks taught me so much about geology that can only be learned outside of the classroom. Overall, the amount of time that is spent out in the field for many of the classes is a real strength. 

“Another strength of the department is how many students do research and internships. It’s such a great way to develop skills for our careers, as well as to get experience in different areas of geology.”

She is excited that she found her future career within the STEM fields, Langfield says.

Now, Langfield is working to encourage other young girls who have an interest in science, technology, engineering and math to follow their own dreams.

For example, she holds a leadership position in UW-Eau Claire’s Women and Gender Minorities in STEM organization. The student organization gives her opportunities to interact with girls in the Chippewa Valley who share her interest in STEM, she says.

“Through this organization, I’ve had the chance to discover my love for STEM outreach,” Langfield says. “We have events at regional schools and with the Girl Scouts. I am so passionate about science and I love encouraging that same passion in girls.”

In the fall, Langfield plans to attend graduate school to study volcanology. Her hope, she says, is to stay involved in research.