Riverine Re[Sr]ch: An Undergraduate’s Journey in Geology

College of Arts & Sciences

As a first-year student, Elena Watts took a research-based field trip that would change her life and lead her to four years of undergraduate research at UNC. The results of her original work served as the basis for a grant that now funds other students in the geology department.
Elena Watts and two other Carolina students hike in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during their “Field Geology of Eastern California” field trip.Each October, eastern California shifts gears. Leaves change color, waterfalls diminish to trickles, and the wildlife inhabiting this stunning landscape prepare for winter. UNC geologist Drew Coleman stands near a cliff face in Yosemite National Park, excitedly describing the surrounding topography to a small group of Carolina students. It turns out that the mountains, valleys, and glacier-carved rock features of this region are changing, too, but much, much slower.
Elena Watts listens to Coleman’s talk in awe, taking in the beauty of the Sierra Nevada.
At the time, Watts was a first-year interested in neuroscience, but after spending her 2015 fall break with Coleman’s “Field Geology of Eastern California” class, she decided to become a geologist.
“I’d like to think there’s a little bit of geologist in everybody, and you can’t go to a national park without engaging in geology,” Coleman says. “Everybody’s got this curiosity, and I think what the California trip does is turns it to eleven.”
“Field Geology of Eastern California” is a first-year seminar course taught by Coleman and Allen Glazner, another geology professor at UNC. It engages students in original research projects of their own design, which was the aspect of the trip that hooked Watts — she loved the challenge and process of doing research and gathering data in the field.
“When I came to Carolina, I was a biology and psychology double-major,” she says. “I took the geology …

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