Geology Pre-Grad Intern Julie Helfrich

Through the Intellectual Entrepreneurship course I created and conducted my own research project while learning valuable information about graduate school. My project allowed me to discover the methodology of research as well as my individual interests within the field of hydrogeology. The course also helped me learn the specifics of the application process and much more about life as a graduate student. This information has been especially valuable throughout the semester as I prepare to enter graduate school next fall. I believe the knowledge I have obtained through this program will allow me to find an appropriate program and graduate research project.

I knew at the beginning of the semester that I would need to make a decision about my future as I plan to graduate in May 2010. Through my experiences this semester, including the IE program, I know now that I want to attend graduate school next fall. Throughout the application process, I found the resources provided by this internship were very beneficial. The faculty and graduate student panels allowed me to hear firsthand what graduate school is like, and the external meeting with a Career Exploration Center representative helped answer many of my questions. While some of my experiences during the IE internship caused me to question whether or not I wanted to go to graduate school, as the semester draws to a close I know that I am pursuing a path that is the appropriate next step for me.

Conducting research and writing a paper on my conclusions was a time consuming and sometimes stressful endeavor. Throughout the process, I made several important discoveries about myself, both positive and negative. However, I believe this experience gave me a legitimate glimpse into what life will be like as a graduate student. I also feel that this project has led me to narrow down my research interests, which can only help me as I prepare to choose a graduate research project in the near future.

The research I conducted for the course looked at long term trends of discharge, dissolved oxygen levels, and specific conductance of Barton Springs in Austin. Determining these relationships can be useful in helping protect the environmentally sensitive species that inhabit the springs, as well as ascertaining the general geochemistry of the resource. Barton Springs is home to the endangered Barton Springs salamander (Eurycea sosrum), and is the species' only known habitat. Additionally, Barton Springs is designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a sole source aquifer. This designation indicates that at least half of the local drinking water comes from Barton Springs, and that no other principal source of water exists. Barton Springs also feeds Barton Springs pool, which is a popular swimming venue for Austin residents and tourists.

This project compelled me to become more familiar with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) website. This website is an extremely valuable resource, and I know I can and will make use of it in the future. Through my project, I was able to make several interesting conclusions about long term trends in the data. Not all of the conclusions were relationships that I had originally expected, and it was interesting to see the differences between natural data and the theoretical.

My project did evolve over the course of the semester. For example, at the beginning of the project, I expected that some field work would be involved. However, I was able find all of the information that I needed on the USGS website, and realized that field work would require a great deal of time that was just not feasible with my schedule. I think I would have enjoyed the field work, and I hope that in graduate school project I can dedicate more of my time specifically to my project and conduct work such as this. I had also expected to discuss more of the effects of dissolved oxygen levels with respect to the Barton Springs Salamander, but I found that the project had enough information and this took it in a new and probably unnecessary direction.

Although I feel excited that I made some interesting discoveries during this research, I did find that geochemistry is not the area of hydrogeology that is the most interesting to me. Instead, I found that I have more enthusiasm for the study of the physical aspects of the subject. Additionally, I came to realize that the environmental consequences of the research that I conducted are what attracted me to the project. For this reason, I looked for graduate programs that included a strong emphasis on environmental management. Two out of the three programs that I am applying for are actually within a school of natural resources instead of geology. Although geologic and hydrologic processes are still an important part of these programs, they also focus on the science behind management and the protection of the environment. As I thought back to my freshman year of college when I first decided to become a geology major, I realized that this is what has interested me about the subject all along.

As I complete this internship, I feel comfortable with my decision to attend graduate school and enthusiastic about the prospect. My experiences through the IE program have given me a better understanding of what graduate school entails, including how it is different from undergraduate education. I feel that I could not have gained an experience such as this anywhere else. I am excited to complete the application process and continue my academic pursuits.