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Spotlight / Geology Graduate Accepted to a Top Geoscience Doctoral Program

January 31st, 2017

Las Vegas, N.M. – A Highlands University geology graduate student will begin her doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, one of the top geoscience research universities in the country.

Sarah Shields earned a master’s degree in geology from Highlands in December 2016 with a 3.9 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in environmental geology summa cum laude in 2014.

“The University of Wisconsin is a good fit for my research goal of working in tectonics, understanding the mechanics of continental plate collision,” Shields said. “Specifically, I’m interested in studying granites and how they record strain from these collisions.”

Shields’ doctoral research will focus on the batholiths in the Sahwave Mountains in central Nevada. A batholith is a large rock mass formed underground by slow-cooling magma and exposed by erosion, such as El Capitan, a famous granite outcropping in Yosemite National Park, and Hermit’s Peak north of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

“While the batholiths in the Sierra Nevada Mountains are well documented and studied, the Sahwave Mountains batholiths are relatively unstudied. Understanding how the continental collisions occurred in the past will help geologists better model and predict current collision events worldwide from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the Andes Mountains in South America and Japan,” Shields said.

She said the geology research opportunities at Highlands have been phenomenal.

“These research endeavors that originated with my Highlands geology professors Dr. Michael Petronis and Dr. Jennifer Lindline gave me the chance to collaborate with international geologists in the Czech Republic, France and Scotland,” Shields said.

For her master’s thesis, Shields conducted detailed research of the Zapúky volcano in the Czech Republic, where the volcano’s magma feeder system was exposed due to being quarried.

“I used a multidisciplinary approach that combined studying the geochemical processes and the structural evolution during the volcano’s formation. My research helped develop accurate volcano evolution models that are useful to scientists who study active volcanos because the models can help predict the type and duration of eruptions,” Shields said.

She said that ultimately, a better understanding of volcanos can save lives.

For six months in 2016, Shields was an exchange student at Blaise Pascale University in France through a partnership with the Highlands Geology Department. She conducted fieldwork like mapping the quarried Lemtegy volcano.

“While in France, I presented my graduate thesis research at the European Geoscience Union conference in Vienna, which was daunting and exhilarating. I felt honored to represent Highlands and my country,” Shields said.

In 2014, Shields participated in a two-week fieldwork experience in the Isle of Mull, Scotland to study and map where the ancient tectonic plates collided on the island.

“The Isle of Mull fieldwork helped solidify my interest in studying large-scale tectonics at the doctoral level,” Shields said.

Highlands University geology professor Michael Petronis is Shields’ primary research adviser and fellow geology professor Jennifer Lindline is Shields’ co-adviser.

“Sarah has already demonstrated her ability to conduct high-impact research, and I expect her to advance the knowledge of the geoscience community at the Ph.D. level,” Petronis said. “Sarah’s keen intelligence, motivation, enthusiasm and dedication are unique. Since her first days as a student at Highlands in 2013, she excelled in both geology field work and her ability to grasp complex geologic processes.”

Petronis said that as a graduate teaching assistant, Shields inspired many undergraduate students to also excel in their studies and research.

“Since 2013, Sarah has been an integral part of advancing the collective research of the geology students who use our state-of-the art Paleomagnetic Rock Magnetic Laboratory at Highlands,” Petronis said.

Shields said it’s a dream-come-true to be Ph.D. bound in August.

“My goal after I complete my Ph.D. is to continue in academia as a tenured geology professor at a research institution,” Shields said. “I hope to collaborate someday on research with my fantastic Highlands advisers Dr. Petronis and Dr. Lindline.”

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