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Geological sciences major recognized as fall 2020 Dean’s Medalist


School of Earth and Space Exploration Dean’s Medalist Sarah Braunisch.

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December 07, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Undergraduate Sarah Braunisch is The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences fall 2020 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Earth and Space Exploration and will graduate with a degree in geological sciences. 

“We congratulate Sarah on this well-deserved honor,” said School of Earth and Space Exploration director Meenakshi Wadhwa. “We are incredibly proud of her achievements, especially given the challenging circumstances that we are in at the present time and look forward to all that she will achieve beyond ASU.”

As a child growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, Braunisch would hike the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and spend hours collecting quartz samples. “I loved the hunt, where there was always the possibility to find something new,” she said.  

After high school, Braunisch attended ASU for a year before she accepted a job in Tokyo as an au pair and personal assistant for an engineer in the oilfield services industry. During her three years in Japan, Braunisch was surrounded by career professionals and that led her, ultimately, to decide that she wanted to return to school to complete a degree. 

With this new realization, Braunisch returned to ASU and enrolled in the School of Earth and Space Exploration as a geological sciences major, and she has not looked back since.

Braunisch found her passion for planetary science when she joined the Christensen Research Group, led by Regents Professor Philip Christensen. There she worked in his lab comparing mineral samples to observations from asteroid and Mars missions. 

“Sarah began working in my research group several years ago. We immediately recognized that she was an outstanding student with a great deal of curiosity, interest, and ability,” said Christensen. “I encouraged her to apply to graduate school at ASU and I’m extremely happy to hear that she has accepted our offer. I am really looking forward to continuing to work with her.”

After graduation, Braunisch will start graduate school in the spring here at ASU to work toward her PhD in geological sciences. 

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: It is easy to pigeonhole yourself into a place where you will miss opportunities because you identify with a particular field or science. When I first attended ASU as an undergraduate student, I was so adamant that I wanted to be a geologist that I ignored the planetary sciences. After getting a job as a spectrometer technician in the Mars Space Flight Facility, I took a related class on remote sensing and infrared spectroscopy. This class changed the course of my undergraduate career and awoke in me a desire to continue in this field.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, ASU with its strength in the geological sciences was the most logical choice for me.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: While I believe that I learned a lot from every professor I had the opportunity to interact with at ASU, Regents Professor Phil Christensen showed me that while you can be a giant in your field, you can also be humble and kind and listen. It is my goal to continue my education as a graduate student and eventually become an expert in my field, and I hope that in doing so, I will be humble and kind and listen. 

Q: Did you face any challenges to finish your degree in a year with a pandemic? 

A: The pandemic made it hard for me to navigate the loss of opportunity. I planned to spend the summer of 2020 doing geologic mapping in the Himalayas, followed by two months in the Namib desert studying drylands. I was genuinely excited about these opportunities and losing them resulted in a motivational impact on me. To combat this, it has been important for me to focus on what I can do in the meantime and continue to set goals for myself, such as graduating on time and completing my last few classes with excellence.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Do not overthink yourself into self-rejection. There are so many opportunities, especially within the School of Earth and Space Exploration. I recommend getting to know your fellow classmates (graduate, undergraduate, and postdocs) and talking to your professors. I think you will be surprised how far you can get. As people, we are all on equal footing. If I can do it, so can you.

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