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Shape Your Destiny: Holly Pettus

The thrill of volcanoes led West Virginia University senior Holly Pettus to a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of Hawaii this summer. 


Pettus, a senior geology student from Pineville, West Virginia, spent nine weeks studying mantle xenoliths from Kilbourne Hole, New Mexico. 

When a volcano erupts, rock from the mantle is ripped and ejects alongside the magma. It is difficult to determine where these rocks originate once they are found on the surface, which Pettus hopes to discover through her research.

“The different crystals within the rock tell you what pressure and what temperature the rock formed at, and that tells you what depth it actually came from,” Pettus said. “To determine this, we looked at calcium content in olivine crystals within the rock with an electron microprobe and were able to better constrain where the rocks actually came from by using the chemistry of the rock.”

By examining rocks and understanding where they come from within the different zones of the mantle, researchers are able to understand where magma is stored as well as the history and chemistry of the system, ultimately determining the evolution and path the magma has taken through time.

“If you better understand the chemistry of the rock and where they are from, it can help with knowing what is going on in the subsurface,” Pettus said. “That can help scientists better understand how magma moves in the mantle.”

While in Hawaiʻi, Pettus had the opportunity to explore several of the state’s volcanoes.

“We actually got to see lava and learned a ton in the field,” Pettus said. “We were able to see the active volcano, and we looked at the different textures of the lava as it cooled.” 

The NSF funds many of research opportunities for undergraduate students through its REU sites program. An REU site consists of about 10 undergraduates who research at a host institution. Each student is associated with a specific research project, where he or she works closely with the faculty and other researchers.

After graduating in May 2018, Pettus plans to obtain a master’s degree to become a volcanologist. After working in physical volcanology, she hopes to pursue a PhD to teach at a university.