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NMSU geology undergraduates make presentations at national, state conventions

Undergraduates at New Mexico State University are adding to what is known about the Southwest's geologic history as the result of a unique program aimed at giving them experience in independent research before graduate school.

New Mexico State University geology students Bridget McCollam, left, and Yvette Lopez load rock samples into a crusher while preparing them for x-ray fluorescent analysis. McCollam and Lopez are participants in NMSU's URGE program, which allows undergra..

Yvette Lopez of El Rito, N.M., a senior in NMSU's geology department, is scheduled to make a presentation Nov. 14 at the Geological Society of America's annual conference in Reno, Nev., on her research into the age and geochemistry of diabase dikes -- rock formations -- in southwest New Mexico's Burro Mountains.

The research is significant. The dikes, actually tears in the Earth's crust, could be evidence that 1.1 billion years ago, during the Precambrian era, a rift formed in the crust, allowing molten rock to ooze to surface. Under one scenario, a single such rift extended across what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, Lopez said.

She said she was surprised and delighted to learn that doing such work was possible for an undergraduate at NMSU.

"I was hoping before I graduated I would get to do some of the lab procedures or get to collect field data and see how it was done -- and we do that on field trips connected with classes. But those are assignments, not independent projects," she said.

Bridget McCollam of Albuquerque, another senior geology major at NMSU, gave a talk Oct. 20 at the New Mexico Geological Society's fall field conference on her research into the geochemistry of basalts in the Little Hatchet Mountains in the state's Bootheel area.

Because they were incorrectly identified in the 1970s, proving that the rocks are basalts -- formed on the Earth's surface from volcanic lava -- and from the Jurassic period, could lead to a new understanding of the geologic history of the Southwest, said McCollam's advisor, NMSU geology associate professor Nancy McMillan.

"I didn't know it was possible to do this kind of work as an undergraduate," McCollam said. "I'm really happy that I learned how to do the research and how to go through the whole process of a research project. I want to be a college professor and half of what college professors do is research. Now I know that I like geology research."

Lopez and McCollam are beneficiaries of the NMSU geology department's Undergraduate Research for Geologic Experience (URGE) program, a formal program designed to give undergraduates the kind of hands-on research experience that will both prepare them for graduate work and strengthen their resumes.

Developed by McMillan in 1998, the program now has 12 undergraduate participants, mentored by three professors -- McMillan, Jeff Amato and Tim Lawton. W. Scott Baldridge, a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is also a mentor in the program.

"In other schools, if you have a talented junior or senior he or she might approach a professor about doing a senior thesis. The people who do this tend to be pretty confident and they might have connected with a particular professor," Lawton said.

"What makes URGE a little different is that it is somewhat unified. It enables students to take that first step, to make a connection that could be really important to them," he added.

McMillan said students come to URGE in a variety of ways. In some cases, a professor may have some work he or she needs done and is looking for a student to do it. In others a student may have a research idea he or she would like to pursue.

"I'm not particular about how a project gets started," she said. "In fact one of the things we'll do in URGE is show undergraduates how to find funding sources for their projects and write grant proposals on their own."

Lopez and McCollam said the program has helped them in a variety of ways.

"To have something as an undergraduate where you can go through the process with a professor who has done it a lot of times -- the experience is priceless," Lopez said. "When you're in graduate school without the research training, it's a little difficult to get started, to be able to think about the project logically. When you're an undergraduate people are more understanding of your learning curve, and that first stretch is the hardest."

"I wouldn't have known how to do any of the research tasks without training," McCollam said. "URGE has given me a chance to apply in the field what I've learned in the classroom. ... I know this experience will help me get into graduate school."

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/urge.jpg.
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CUTLINE: New Mexico State University geology students Bridget McCollam, left, and Yvette Lopez load rock samples into a crusher while preparing them for x-ray fluorescent analysis. McCollam and Lopez are participants in NMSU's URGE program, which allows undergraduates to carry out independent research projects. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Jack King
Nov. 10, 2000