Erickson Discovery Grant opens doors for senior in geosciences

Catherine Hanagan, an undergraduate student in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, conducted fieldwork in Iceland through funding from a Rodney A. Erickson Discovery Grant.  Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As Catherine Hanagan trekked across the rugged landscape of Iceland, lava rock crunching under her feet with each step, one thought constantly ran through her mind.

“Our planet is so amazing,” said Hanagan, a senior studying geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State.

Hanagan conducted fieldwork last summer around Hekla, a volcano located in southern Iceland, with funding provided by the Rodney A. Erickson Discovery Grant Program.

“Getting grants is a huge part of participating in geosciences research,” Hanagan said. “It’s so important, and it’s wonderful that Penn State is able to give that opportunity to undergraduates.”

The Erickson grant program, named in honor of Penn State's 17th president, supports undergraduate engagement in original research, scholarship and creative work under the direct supervision of a faculty member.

The funding allowed Hanagan to work with Halldor Geirsson, who received his doctorate in geosciences from Penn State in 2014. Hanagan and Geirsson, who is now a professor at the University of Reykjavik, shared the same adviser at Penn State, Peter La Femina, associate professor of geosciences, who introduced the two.

Starting her days early in the morning, Hanagan and the team drove across the rough terrain around Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes.

The team deployed equipment that communicates with satellites to distinguish small changes in the ground that occur over time as magma chambers below the surface fill and empty.

“When Hekla is about to erupt, magma migrates up through the system and the ground deforms or inflates,” Hanagan said. “The GPS measurements are very precise, and we can compare them to past positions to see how much deformation has occurred.”

The researchers spent many of their days setting up stations, rooting them in solid rock and attaching antennas to allow for satellite communication.

“I’m sure I’ll have opportunities moving forward because of what I was able to learn there, including how to work as part of a team,” Hanagan said.

Hanagan’s senior thesis involves research on another volcano — Telica, in Nicaragua. She is studying changes in the volcano’s crater morphology using photogrammetry.

Hanagan began working on the project with La Femina as a first-year student with funding from a Women in Science and Engineering Research (WISER) grant from the NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium.

Although her research in Iceland and her work with Telica were two separate experiences, Hanagan said she was able to use knowledge she has learned from each project to support the other.

“I always knew I loved geosciences, but it’s opportunities like these that remind me again just why I love it,” she said. “And I’m thankful towards Penn State for opening this door for me.”

Last Updated June 21, 2019