Through the Student Lens – Thriving student’s success underscores the experience and perspective gained through Wheaton’s faculty-led trips

Katie Walz ’25
Major: Environmental Science / Concentration: Geoscience
Hometown: Bellevue, Washington
Katie Walz received support from the Cee Greene ’82 Wheaton Fund for Experiential Learning.

How does the college create opportunity for students to develop a classroom research interest into a fully immersive, student-led experience out in the field? Check out one accomplished student’s summer on Wheaton’s faculty-led trip to Iceland as you take a look “Through the Student Lens.”

Can you talk about why you chose this particular faculty-led trip, managed by Dr. Geoffrey Collins, Professor of Geology from the Physics and Astronomy Department, and Dr. Matthew Evans, Professor of Chemistry and Geology from the Chemistry Department? How would you describe the benefits of having faculty members from both departments on the trip?

I chose this trip to learn more about my specific interests within the field of geochemistry with professors who made me feel comfortable learning new things. This duo of Professor Collins and Professor Evans leading the trip was perfect. I am an Environmental Science, Geoscience concentration major, meaning I have worked closely with Geoff Collins as my major advisor and professor. The semester before Iceland I also got the privilege to work on an independent study with Matt Evans studying vernal pool chemistry. These professors have both been very kind, personable, knowledgeable, and encouraging throughout our relationship. The intersectionality of their expertise came in very handy when developing our methods as well as conducting our field research in Iceland. The two different perspectives of the professors also taught me how to look through contrasting lenses in the field, ultimately allowing the students to be able to grasp the entire robust concept.

For this project-based excursion, students spent time last semester developing proposals for observations and measurements that were then carried out in field locations throughout Iceland. Can you describe your process last semester and the work you and other students did ahead of the trip?

The professors scheduled weekly meetings the semester prior to the Iceland trip. During these meetings, we would learn about different geological or chemical features that occurred in Iceland. These included—but were not limited to—the anatomy of volcanoes, glaciers, and geysers as well as the chemical composition of hot springs and volcanic vents. We also learned about the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a major reason why Iceland even exists! As we started to get a grip on Iceland’s interesting geochemical features we split off into pairs and started developing topics of interest for our research proposal. As each group settled on a topic, they would meet with the professors to ask questions, narrow down, and finalize the proposal and methods of data collection.

Once in Iceland, each student was responsible for leading the student group in carrying out their own proposal. Can you describe this leadership opportunity, what you learned, and where you found success in this process?

My partner and I designed our research project around hot spring CO2 emissions based on the proximity to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Our project required specific equipment that was not easily delegated, meaning we mostly conducted our specific research on our own. Throughout the trip, we did help many other groups collect data. Within smaller groups, there were opportunities to lead that data collection. Being involved in the wide variety of projects going on even further developed my understanding of Iceland’s geochemistry.

While you were in Iceland, a Wheaton alumna visited and spoke with your student group. What perspective did she bring and what did her visit teach you about Wheaton alumni across the world?

Gizzy Spencer is currently studying coastal marine management at The University Centre of the Westfjords in Iceland. She made the few-hour-long trek to come visit us on our trip. Gizzy graduated from Wheaton in 2020 and went on the previous Iceland trip! She shared many of her experiences from her time at Wheaton, the Iceland trip, and her adventures beyond undergrad. She prepared a slideshow and walked us through what it was like to be a student at her university. Seeing Gizzy—someone who was just like us a few years ago—back studying in Iceland and following her passions was truly inspiring. She was so excited to meet us and learn about our research, as well as offer any insight and recommendations for continuing a scientific career after Wheaton. She is a great example of how Wheaton alumni are continuously excited to support current undergrads throughout their educational journey.

How do you think this program has influenced your Wheaton experience and what did you learn that will help you determine your career choices post-Wheaton?
The Iceland trip showed me my strengths and weaknesses when it came to working with others, designing scientific questions and projects, and adapting to unexpected situations.

I feel that I learned how to look at the landscape as a book that was waiting to be decoded using many different lenses. I am even more passionate about pursuing geology and staying a lifelong learner.

This opportunity really brought me closer to the other students and faculty on the trip. I feel much more comfortable stopping by my professor’s office and chatting, whether it is about science or not! My sense of community at Wheaton has greatly widened. I feel that I now have a strong academic support system consisting of peers and faculty who personally know me and care about helping me find and follow my passion.

Katie is just one of the many engaging students here at Wheaton. As parents and guardians, you are an integral part of our community. “Through the Student Lens” brings the campus to you, as seen through the eyes of our students, the many roles they play and the experiences they gain during their time here at Wheaton.