Senior wins national award

A senior UW-Eau Claire geology student won a national award in November after two years of research.

Katie Thornburg presented the results of her research on glacial geology mapping and clay mineral analyses at the national Geological Society of America meeting in Reno, Nev., in mid-November.

At the conference, Thornburg had a booth to display her poster papers about her research. Scientists asked questions, and a judging panel decided the winners.

When it was Thornburg’s turn before the judges, she said she was concentrating on what she was saying, not on winning.

“I knew in the back of my mind it was being judged,” Thornburg said. “You don’t want to be made a fool of.”

So when she did win, Thornburg was pleased.

“I was a little surprised,” she said. “I was really happy.”

Associate geology professor Kent Syverson approached Thornburg during a class at the end of her freshman year about doing the research.

“It was a pre-existing project that I walked into,” she said.

Thornburg’s research is part of a larger glacial geology project Syverson has been working on for four years.

A few years ago, a senior geology minor student began the project with Syverson, working out the methods. The student helped acquaint Thornburg with the research.

Syverson said he asked Thornburg to take on the research because she was the top student in his environmental geology class.

The project had such a steep learning curve that he needed a young student who would be there long enough to understand and then do the project, Syverson said.

“If you train a senior in, they just start learning and then they’re gone,” he said.

Thornburg worked on the project from the summer after her freshman year to the end of her junior year.

It included mapping in the southwest Chippewa County area and working in the Eau Claire geochemistry lab.

While the mapping wasn’t physically demanding, the research was not simple, Thornburg said.

“It’s much more mentally challenging,” she said. “(You’re) trying to think of something that’s never been done before.”

Thornburg was up against about 19 other undergraduate students’ projects at the national conference. There were many good projects, she said.

Syverson said there was probably no poster in Thornburg’s category at the conference that had more science in it than hers. But even he didn’t know she would win.

“I knew that she had done an incredible amount of work,” Syverson said. “But you never assume anything.”