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Geology grad receives GeoCUR Award for Outstanding Research

Alumna Holly Pettus (BS Geology, 2018) is among 15 undergraduate students from universities across the nation to be recognized for her outstanding research with the 2018 GeoCUR Award for Excellence in Student Research. Her research focused on investigating the origin of potassium feldspar (K-feldspar) megacrysts from a small granitoid intrusion in western Nevada. 

Holly Pettus
Holly Pettus

Kenneth Brown, a teaching assistant professor of geology, said he nominated Pettus because he was impressed with her work and dedication to science.

“Beyond being a great student, Holly is very motivated and has shown a remarkable sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and interest in the fields of igneous petrology, volcanology and geochemistry,” Brown said. “She is an excellent role model for other young, female students entering the STEM fields.”

For her research, Pettus examined the crystals that form from magma as it cools under the surface.

“We know what order minerals usually crystalize in, and what temperatures,” Pettus said. “My crystals are megacrystic because they’re greater than four centimeters—they’re very large—and they usually form last.”

The crystals she examined are much larger than would normally be expected.

“They should be really small, and they should not have a pretty shape. But mine are greater than four centimeters in most cases, and they are beautiful, well-defined crystals, and we don’t know why,” Pettus said. 

Working from two established hypotheses about the topic, Pettus said they were able to learn more.

“What we found was that they did form in a magmatic environment, which is really cool actually. And the reason they were able to do that was because there was a higher concentration of barium within that magma while the rock was crystallizing,” Pettus said.

Pettus, a Pineville, West Virginia, native, didn’t come to WVU knowing geology would become her passion.

“I came here to WVU as a performing arts major. I changed my major at least four times,” Pettus said. “And then I took geology as a [general education] class and fell in love with it.”

“I was just fascinated with how much we know about our Earth, and we figure all of that out from rocks,” Pettus said. “Everything I heard, I wanted to go tell somebody about it. And so I knew this was something I would love to do.”

Pettus’s main passion in geology is studying eruption processes. She had the opportunity to study aspects of these processes during her National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of Hawaii during the summer of 2017. She will also pursue this topic in her graduate studies.

When she was a kid, Pettus loved science, but had no idea she would eventually want to become a scientist.

“I wanted to do everything when I was little,” Pettus said. “My main dream was always to be an actress. But then I wanted to be a journalist, and then I wanted to work for NASA. Then I was going to be a psychologist, and go to law school. I was going to go to pharmacy school—literally everything.”

But that changed when one of her teachers opened her eyes to what science was all about.

She said it’s been difficult at times to explain her passion to her family and others.

“I’m a first generation college student. My sister, she’s a teacher, so she got her degree, but she’s not a scientist. So trying to explain this stuff to them is difficult,” Pettus said. “But after I got my internship in Hawaii, it was much easier for them to understand there are possibilities, and this stuff I’m doing is actually really important.”

Over the past summer, Pettus gained additional fieldwork experience, going to Iceland for a week field experience related to a course she took this past spring. She also completed a six-week field camp, “going from South Dakota all the way out to Montana, and a lot of stops in between.” For geology majors, field camp acts as their senior capstone experience, teaching them valuable research skills.

Pettus also feels grateful she had other ample opportunities to learn research prior to this experience.

“Being able to do research as an undergraduate, knowing that I wanted to go to grad school really enabled me to develop a new skill set, one that would be vital to me as a grad student,” Pettus said.

Pettus urges all WVU students to seek out opportunities for mentorship, no matter what field they study. She said the first step is to look into the professors in your department, and see what research they’re doing.

“And then you send them an email. And if they don’t reply, you go to their office and you say, ‘Hey, I’m an undergrad student. I’m really interested in doing research. Do you have a project I could work on?’” Pettus said. “You just have to seek people out.”

Pettus plans to start a PhD program in physical volcanology at the University of Tasmania in Australia in January 2019. She will study volcanoes, lava and eruption processes.