Graduate students in the ESPP spotlight

The interdisciplinary research of Sheldon Turner and Bob Drost, two doctoral students in the Geocognition Research Lab of Dr. Julie Libarkin, was recently highlighted by the Environmental Science and Policy Program (ESPP), of which both are members.

By Liz Pacheco, News Writer for ESPP:
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For Sheldon Turner, geology is the ultimate interdisciplinary field. In college, with little prior knowledge of geology, he took some courses and was excited to see that it involved his other scientific interests—math, physics and chemistry. Following his graduation with a bachelor’s in geology and a minor in physics, Turner joined the MSU Department of Geological Sciences. Here, his research has involves psychology, education and even policy.

At MSU, Turner is member of Julie Libarkin’s Geocognition Research Lab. As the name suggests, the lab goes beyond traditional geology to ask how people perceive and understand the Earth and its processes.

“There are a lot of assumptions about scientists, about how they behave and think,” said Turner who focuses part of his work on how students and expert scientists understand and perform science.

Recently, Turner worked on a project that studied geologists. Taking place over two summers in Montana, the study asked geologists, ranging from recent graduates to professional surveyors, to map the geologic structures and rock types in an area. A GPS tracked the geologists’ movement in the field and the maps were collected. Spatial ability, conceptual knowledge, and other aptitudes were also tested.

“With all this information we are learning the characteristics that make someone a ‘good’ geologist, and how that changes over a career,” said Turner. Beyond geology, Turner also sees this kind of research applicable to understanding climate change perceptions of expert scientists.

For Turner, learning how to share scientific findings is particularly appealing. While he is potentially interested in using these skills to teach, Turner is more drawn to the opportunities for policy work—a driving reason behind his decision to join ESPP. “I am very interested in science education policy because that is key to the future of science,” said Turner. More generally though, Turner is interested in communicating science to politicians to help them make informed decisions.

As part of ESPP, Turner finds he is benefiting from both the interdisciplinary nature of the courses and the students in the program. “Having those connections and the opportunity to collaborate is really great,” he said.
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After encouraging his son to become a Geological Sciences major at MSU, Bob Drost has paved his own way in the department. While his son has since graduated and now works with as a geologist with an environmental organization, Drost has become a Ph.D. student in Julie Libarkin’s Geocognition Lab.

“I wasn’t necessarily interested in geology,” said Drost about his decision to come to MSU. “[My interests were] more on meteorology, severe weather and peoples’ interactions with weather.” However Libarkin’s lab, which studies how people perceive and understand the earth and its processes, was appealing because of its interdisciplinary features, explained Drost. “[Libarkin] is all over the board in people she collaborates with.”

Drost’s latest research has focused specifically on people’s reactions to tornado warnings.  The project is multidisciplinary, explained Drost, requiring knowledge about atmospheric science, geology, cognition and social science.

In the fall, Drost presented his findings at the Geological Society of America’s annual conference. He will also give an oral presentation this March at the National Severe Weather Workshop Meeting. Drost is using these meetings to discuss the policy implications of his research: to create more effective severe weather warning systems.

Joining ESPP has only furthered this discussion. ESPP helps him facilitate collaboration between social and natural scientists and understand the policy aspect of science, said Drost. “[The program] is having a positive impact on what I’m doing.”

Beyond tornado warnings, Drost is planning to expand his research to landslides, floods, earthquakes and volcanoes. “There’s a lot of difference between what to do with a tornado warning versus building your home in a landslide zone,” he said. Drost will pursue this element of personal choice.

A Michigan native, Drost spent 20 years working for General Motors and another six as the owner of a hobby shop and paintball store before coming to MSU. While he and his son have yet to do collaborative research, Drost said that he wouldn’t mind working on a project together in the future.

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