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Preparing undergraduates for a future in the Earth sciences

SURGE students spend the summer participating in Earth science research and preparing for graduate school.
August 22, 2014
By
Shara Tonn
Stanford School Of Earth Sciences

Jerry Harris, professor of geophysics at Stanford, saw a need for the Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE) program decades ago.

Back in 1980, Harris received his PhD in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology where he had always been conscious that he was the only African-American in his classes. Harris then entered the petroleum industry workforce as a research specialist, working in various parts of the world while researching seismic imaging.

“It was primarily a white male business,” Harris said. “There weren't many minorities, African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, but there also weren't very many women either.”

Now, three decades later, Harris said that the industry has become more ethnically diverse, but academia, especially in the earth sciences – a field that is still largely physical sciences – is struggling to keep up.

“I decided to take some action to try to change the School of Earth Sciences to help prepare and get more underrepresented minorities into graduate schools in the earth sciences,” Harris said.

Harris founded SURGE, and now in its fourth year, the program has hosted 60 scholars, of which 93% of those who have graduated have gone on to graduate school or careers in the earth sciences.

The best and the brightest

Funded by a seed gift from Chevron and sustained by contributions from BP, Shell, the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, and the Provost at Stanford, Harris said that “success to us is that the students we bring through SURGE go to graduate school somewhere in the country.”  

Each summer, a group of diverse students from universities and colleges across the country – and sometimes the world – come to Stanford’s campus for eight weeks of intense research and graduate school preparation. The program takes scholars from any science, technology, engineering and mathematics field as long as they express an interest into going on to graduate school in the earth sciences.

Paired with faculty mentors from a number of departments including Environmental Earth System Science, Energy Resource Engineering, Geological and Environmental Sciences, and Geophysics, the students do graduate-level research and work to prepare a final oral and poster presentation.

This summer, projects range from identifying discrepancies in simulations of building movement during earthquakes to studying what concentrations of microbes lead to the formation of chromium-6, a naturally occurring carcinogen in serpentine soils.

Students also attend twice-weekly Graduate Record Examination preparation classes, career and graduate student panels, faculty seminars, and field trips exploring the biology, geology and environment of Northern California.

“There's a lot happening in addition to research so that the scholars develop a comprehensive understanding of what comprises graduate school and a career in earth sciences - and so they can see that they’re a fit for that path,” said Tenea Nelson, the assistant dean in the School of Earth Sciences Office of Multicultural Affairs and the coordinator for SURGE. 

With students who come from smaller liberal arts colleges, minority serving institutions, or underserved backgrounds, Nelson said that it’s great to be able to reach scholars with academic potential who might normally self-select out of applying to Stanford or peer institutions and give them the confidence to go further in their studies.

More confidence and more options

In talking to some scholars from this year’s program, they said that SURGE has opened their eyes to the breadth of research in the earth sciences and given them more determination to pursue their own interests.

One of the scholars, Shersingh J. Tumber-Davila, was born and raised in Puerto Rico.  Now, a rising senior majoring in environmental conservation and sustainability at the University of New Hampshire and an Udall Scholar, Tumber-Davila is working to become a professor because he said it’s a career that combines his loves of learning, teaching, and research.

“SURGE is important in the possibilities and the experience that it gives students that come from a diverse background – it's just crucial,” said Tumber-Davila. “There's so many little things that you have to learn about the graduate school application process, and it seems like if you don't go to a program like this or don't have a mentor then you wouldn't know a lot of these things.” 

Ferdinand Harerimana, originally from Rwanda and now a rising senior in physics and math at Wofford College in South Carolina, had never thought much about climate change before attending the faculty seminars with SURGE.   

But “in the future, whenever I work on something, my question will be how is this going to affect people or species or plants around here,” said Harerimana, a recipient of the elite Rwanda Presidential Scholarship.

After this summer, Harerimana said he feels much more prepared to apply to graduate school in civil engineering and hydrology – studies he hopes will prepare him to collaborate on solutions to some of Rwanda’s issues with flooding and landslides.

Entering her junior year in biogeochemistry at Cornell University, Mariela Garcia said SURGE demystified the graduate school process. In her lab and through SURGE networking, she has met people who came into the Earth sciences from a variety of backgrounds, which encouraged her to be more flexible about further exploring her interests.

“It shows you that there are people that really care that you get into graduate school and want you to get there,” Garcia said. “I feel like it's a huge hand that reaches down to where we all are in undergrad trying to figure out our way and pulls us up a little more to see what it is that we're doing before it's too late.”

‘Diversity attracts diversity’

Starting in September, there will be two SURGE alumni at Stanford – one in Geophysics and one in Geological and Environmental Sciences.

Other SURGE alumni have stayed in touch with each other and their faculty mentors, and though Nelson and Harris both said that they would like more SURGE students to come to Stanford, they look forward to seeing them at Stanford as future post-doctoral scholars, faculty members or research collaborators.

“Diversity is an important part of the reason why Stanford is so successful at what it does because we bring together some of the smartest students and staff and faculty from around the world,” said Harris. “And it's important to have that diversity in all dimensions because diversity fosters creativity, innovation, and leads to better solutions, and diversity attracts diversity.”