Two WCU geology students benefit from prestigious internships

WCU senior geology major Michael Cato during his summer internship at the Johnson Space Center.

WCU senior geology major Michael Cato during his summer internship at the Johnson Space Center.

After Leslie Montoya applied for an internship with UNAVCO’s Research Experiences in Solid Earth Sciences program, her father kept telling her she was going to be one of the rare students chosen. When the Western Carolina University senior geology major got the call that she was accepted, he quickly reminded her that, “You didn’t believe me when I said you’d get it,” Montoya recalled.

Meanwhile, it took some time for the news to sink in when Montoya’s classmate, senior geology major Michael Cato, learned he was one of a select few chosen by the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s summer internship program in planetary science.

“I texted (assistant geology professor) Amy (Fagan) and I think she was almost more excited than me,” Cato said. “It was one of those things where it probably took me two or three weeks just to get over the initial high because it’s the best thing you can get (as an undergraduate) in planetary science.”

Montoya and Cato were fortunate enough to earn two of the most exclusive internships in the country. The RESESS internship, is one of three internships offered by UNAVCO, or the University NAVSTAR Consortium. RESESS was created to increase the number of students from groups that are underrepresented in the Earth sciences, including students with disabilities, non-traditional students and students who are African American, American Indian, Native Pacific Islanders, Hispanic, Latinos and others.

The program is based in Boulder, Colorado. Six students were chosen among more than 160 applicants from across the U.S.

WCU senior geology major Leslie Montoya

WCU senior geology major Leslie Montoya

Working with University of Colorado assistant professor Nicole Lovenduski, Montoya’s project consisted of analyzing climate models that simulated small phytoplankton and diatom blooms growing in the Antarctic Ocean. Montoya observed how different variations on the same climate model changed how the two groups of computer generated phytoplankton were distributed across the ocean. This is referred to as phytoplankton “biogeography.”

Montoya said her biggest accomplishment was learning how to use a program called matrix laboratory, or MATLAB, which was really challenging.

“It was really interesting because being a geology major, I don’t really look into climate a lot,” she said. “I got experience looking at climate models and how we’re going to use them to predict the future of our planet, as well as the futures of the other creatures we share this planet with, specifically phytoplankton. They do happen to be responsible for producing between 50 and 70 percent of our atmosphere’s oxygen.”

“It was a good break from being inundated with hard rock geology all the time, and my internship helped me to become a more well-rounded person,” Montoya said. “I really think I highly benefitted from the experience.”

Growing up in Franklin, Montoya became interested in geology from working in her family’s gem mine.

“Since I was 2 years old, I helped my grandmother pick out rubies and sapphires and other semi-precious gems for people,” she said. “I really loved gemstones and I wanted to learn how they formed and where they form. When I first came to college I was undecided because I wanted to make sure geology is what I wanted to do. But then I took one geology class and two weeks later I declared my major.”

Cato, currently from Chapel Hill, moved around a lot growing up but his love for science always has been a constant. He became interested in geology while in high school, but it wasn’t until his sophomore year at WCU that he discovered his interest in planetary geology and meteorites.

The Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Summer Intern Program in Planetary Science is a prestigious program that offers undergraduates the opportunity to experience cutting-edge research in planetary science. Students work one-on-one with scientists at the LPI and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Cato was one of 12 students chosen out of nearly 600 applicants from around the world.

“In the field of (planetary) science, getting one of these internships is very coveted and people who do these internships tend to be very successful in planetary science,” said Fagan, who did her postdoctoral fellowship at the LPI.

Cato’s internship was at the Johnson Space Center where he examined a primitive chondrite, or a meteorite that hasn’t been significantly altered through heat. The one he worked with was formed between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years ago, Cato said.

Cato examined the structures inside of the chondrite to try and understand what was happening during the time when the solar system was forming small bodies from dust. His advisers were scientists Justin Simon, lead scientist for the Center for Isotope Cosmochemistry and Geochronology at JSK, and Ryan Zeigler, NASA’s Apollo Sample Curator.

“The program I went to was really great because it wasn’t just you go there and you do research,” Cato said. “They had facility tours pretty much every other week. I got to go to the robotics lab at JSC and go in the experimental rover that they actually put some astronauts in for months at a time. We had some tours of all the curation labs at JSC. It’s amazing just to see all of the Apollo samples.”

It was Cato’s first interaction with peers with similar interests as his. He said his experience will give him a leg up as he prepares for his future.

“It’s practical experience in the field,” Cato said. “I can say I’ve done the research. Anybody I want to work for or who is just interested in what I’ve done, I can point them toward these URL’s. Along with that, I can say I was one of the 12 people out of a crazy number of people that applied that got this top-of-the-line internship in planetary science and I worked with some of the best scientists that are out there.”

Cato would eventually like to study specific meteorites to understand the parent body asteroid that they come from, a field he said is not currently well studied.

“I feel like there’s a whole lot of potential there to actually understand what the composition of asteroids are based on the physical meteorite samples that we have,” Cato said.