Earth and space exploration major recognized as spring 2022 Dean’s Medalist
Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.
This spring, Erin Alexander will be graduating from Arizona State University with a bachelor of science degree in earth and space exploration — geological sciences, a minor in biochemistry and a certificate in field geology. She is also the School of Earth and Space Exploration Dean’s Medalist for 2022, a prestigious award that recognizes outstanding academic achievement by the The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as a student in Barrett, The Honors College.
The Austin, Texas, native was looking for a college program with lots of planetary geology and space exploration. She chose ASU for the opportunities it offered her to explore any of the topics she found herself interested in.
Alexander has excelled during her time at ASU by participating in the NASA Space Grant Internship Program, and the research she performed for that project she continued to expand into her senior thesis and graduate plans.
She received the Ravi DeFilippo Geology Field Camp Scholarship, which allowed her to attend Field Geology II last summer to learn about field geology, geomorphology tools and techniques that she could apply to her summer research project in Yellowstone National Park. This launched her current trajectory toward a fieldwork-heavy geological sciences master’s program at ASU.
“Receiving this scholarship allowed me to attend field camp without worrying about my job or rent, which was a major burden off my shoulders,” said Alexander. “It allowed me to do incredibly well in a rigorous class.”
She credits Professor Kelin Whipple with teaching her that the natural world operates under rules she never even thought to imagine; geologic history isn’t just set in stone, it’s carved into all the spaces in between.
"Erin is an excellent student. She is highly motivated and self-directed and known for asking insightful, penetrating questions," said Whipple, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. "Erin’s honors thesis research at the intersection of hot springs, geochemistry and geomorphology is a transdisciplinary blending of ideas and approaches that was developed entirely on Erin’s initiative."
Alexander said that working in Professor Everett Shock’s lab taught her that she is "a real scientist with valid opinions."
"He’s taught me that I’m capable of doing important work, and he has always encouraged me to pursue research that I care about,” she said. The confidence that the members of her research group have given Alexander has been an enormous factor in her growth as a scientist and helped her weather hard situations and questions.
"In her research, Erin has worked to evaluate spatial and temporal variability in hot spring chemistry by synthesizing 20 years of data collected by my group and integrating them for the first time in a GIS analysis," said Shock, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. "Erin has made invaluable contributions to the group, including hoisting an injured graduate student onto her back and carrying her out of the field, averting potential disaster."
One of her biggest accomplishments during her time at ASU was completing a Geological Society of America poster and Space Grant research project during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was thankful to have my mentors, family, friends and pets on my side during that time,” said Alexander. “I am proud of what I could achieve in a time where many opportunities were closed.”
This fall, Alexander will continue at ASU to pursue her master's degree.
She answered questions about her time at ASU.
Question: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
Answer: Socializing and networking are the first steps to getting into fields. Asking experienced people in your field for help and guidance once you get to know them through casual conversations will take you light years further than sending off a million emails into the abyss.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends, or just thinking about life?
A: One of my favorite places on campus is the "secret garden." I haven’t been there often, but one of my favorite memories at ASU was buying a discount picnic basket on accident at Goodwill, deciding I had to use it to have a picnic, and inviting my best friends to eat tuna-salad croissants and drink lemonade from a marching band gallon jug in the middle of the secret garden. It makes me so happy to remember how lucky I am to have made friends with some of the most supportive people I’ve ever met in my life.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I plan to attend ASU as a master’s student after graduating. I’m in love with my current research and want to pursue it for a little while longer at ASU before hopefully starting a PhD program.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I think I’d invest in providing resources for LGBTQ-plus youth around the world. Nobody should be afraid to live in their gender identity or sexual orientation, nobody should be afraid of not being able to pursue their career because of loss of support, and nobody should have to bury a friend born to an unsupportive family.
Q: Any influences from past teachers, friends or family?
A: My parents have had a huge influence on my life and helped me pursue my interests. They encouraged me to be a complete person above all else. My dad learned how to coach whatever sport I wanted to play, answered my many, many questions as best as he could, and encouraged me to spend my free time being as creative as I liked. My mum went out of her way to take me to museums I liked, made sure I always took classes I was interested in rather than forcing me to take something “prestigious,” and let me know that finding something that made me happy was far more important than garnering meaningless success.
Q: Did you face any challenges to finish your degree during a pandemic?
A: I faced a lot of academic and personal challenges over the pandemic, but being able to spend time with my family back in Texas, having a wonderful group of friends who virtually studied together every night, and growing my fun little research tangent into a full-on poster at a national conference was one of the highlights I was able to make during a dim part of world history.