Graduate students win leading geology awards

Contact: Molly Goaley

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A pair of Western Michigan University graduate students brought home two of the top honors presented during the Geological Society of America's annual meeting Oct. 22-25 in Seattle.

Additionally, a third WMU graduate student picked up a prestigious student research grant.

  • Sarah VanderMeer, a doctoral student from Holland, Michigan, in the Department of Geosciences, captured first place in the Best Student Geologic Map Competition. The competition was hosted this year by the U.S. Geological Survey in collaboration with the GSA, GSA Foundation, Association of American State Geologists, American Geosciences Institute, American Institute of Professional Geologists, and Journal of Maps.
  • Peggy McNeal, a doctoral student from San Diego in the Mallinson Institute for Science Education, earned the inaugural Iris Moreno Totten Geoscience Education Research Award. The award is bestowed by the GSA's Geoscience Education Division.
  • Karem Abdelmohsen, a doctoral student from Egypt in the Department of Geosciences, picked up one of two Farouk El-Baz Student Research grants awarded in the Interdisciplinary Interest Group category by the GSA Committee on Research Grants.


Photo of VanderMeer posing with a huge poster that describes her research through text as well as colorful drawings and photos.

VanderMeer at the GSA Annual Meeting

VanderMeer edged out 19 competitors from institutions such as the California Institute of Technology, Colorado State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Chile and Vanderbilt University to claim first place in the Best Student Geologic Map Competition. As the top winner, she received a Brunton International Compass as well as the opportunity to have her map published for a limited run in the Journal of Maps and the Journal of Maps Student Edition.

Her project produced a detailed map of the surficial geology of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and involved three field seasons of data collection. Prior to the project's completion, Pictured Rocks was the only U.S. national park that lacked a detailed surficial geology map, a fundamental foundation to geoscience research.

VanderMeer mapped all 10 of the 7.5-minute quadrangles that incorporate Pictured Rocks. A quadrangle covers an area measuring 7.5 minutes of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude, or an area of 49 to 70 square miles.

Part of VanderMeer's Pictured Rocks work included digging hundreds of small holes five feet deep and characterizing the sediment beneath the surface soil. She also conducted non-invasive geophysical techniques to estimate the thickness of the sediment composing various landforms. She then spent a year integrating her field data with digital topographic information and satellite imagery of the region to produce her map.


Photo of McNeal standing on the rock-strewn fringe of a melting glacier with a stream of rushing water swirling at her feet.

McNeal doing fieldwork in Svalbard, Norway, with a team researching high-latitude glaciers

As the first recipient of the inaugural Totten Award, GSA recognized McNeal for establishing "a precedent of high quality, innovative research for future and early career researchers to follow." The national award acknowledges excellent research emerging from geoscience education, geocognition, or related fields that investigates the ways in which people understand and interact with the Earth.

The honor is intended for early career researchers, from the undergraduate to professional level, who present their work at the GSA Annual Meeting. McNeal's project, presented as "Investigating the Motivations and Practices of Middle School Climate Change Educators," examines teachers' motivations for educating students about climate change using authentic and discovery driven instructional practices.

It was funded by the Joseph P. Stoltman Endowed Scholarship through the Department of Geography, and the results were published in the International Journal of Science Education (Vol. 39, No. 8). The article's co-authors are WMU faculty members, Dr. Heather Petcovic, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Patricia Reeves, associate professor of educational leadership, research and technology.


Photo of Abdelmohsen taking notes while a colleague takes readings from a scientific instrument. The two are working in a flat area of light-colored sand that recedes into a series of darker brown and reddish hills.

Abdelmohsen (right) collecting data during fieldwork at the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt

Abdelmohsen is one of only two people in 2017 selected to receive a $2,500 Farouk El-Baz Student Research Grant. The grant was established to encourage and promote desert research by students worldwide, either in the senior year of their undergraduate studies or at the graduate level.

Abdelmohsen's project, titled "How Do Aquifers Respond to Wet and Dry Periods? A Case Study from the Nubian Aquifer," was selected from among all submitted proposals for arid and land research. It reflects his current research focus on the application of integrated geophysical and remote sensing tools for groundwater potential assessment, exploration and sustainable utilization in arid regions.

Among his particular interests is studying groundwater use in arid regions that has increased in recent decades due to population growth worldwide. As a result, Abdelmohsen has been involved in processing field- and satellite-based geophysical data over the Western Desert of Egypt to understand such complexities as the distribution of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System and temporal change in groundwater storage.

The Geological Society of America

GSA is an international professional society with a membership of more than 26,000 scholars in 115 countries. The society provides access to essential resources for the professional growth of earth scientists at all levels of expertise and from all sectors—academic, government, business and industry.

Every year, the society unites thousands of earth scientists from around the globe to study the mysteries of our planet and beyond and share their scientific findings at the GSA Annual Meeting.

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