Passion for rocks takes student from Trinidad to Penn State to South Africa

Safiya Alpheus, a senior in geosciences, poses at the Bushveld Igneous Complex in South Africa, the world’s largest layered intrusion. A layered intrusion is a large sill-like body of igneous rock that exhibits vertical layering or differences in composition and texture. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When she was 7 years old, Trinidad and Tobago native Safiya Alpheus searched for fossils in her backyard, starting her passion for geology. When she was in high school, she enrolled in a geology-focused geography program, instantly solidifying her interest in the field.

As Trinidad and Tobago, a dual-island Caribbean nation off the coast of Venezuela, lies on the boundary of two tectonic plates, Alpheus saw many career opportunities for geoscientists.

"Because the islands are on a plate boundary, we have a lot of earthquakes and seismologists studying the area,” said Alpheus.

Her love of rocks led her to Penn State to study geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

This self-described “rock nerd,” now a senior at Penn State, has participated in rewarding research programs that have taken her overseas to further her studies.

One experience that she said changed her life was the chance to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Summer program offered through AfricaArray, an initiative to promote geosciences education and research in Africa supported by the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa), the Council for Geoscience (Pretoria, South Africa), and Penn State. Through the REU, Alpheus spent six weeks at Penn State and three weeks in South Africa studying the Bushveld Igneous Complex, the world’s largest layered intrusion. In South Africa, Alpheus’ research focused on sulfur isotope analyses in a special classification of rocks called xenoliths.

Alpheus was fascinated by the imprint that ancient geological events left on the Earth’s surface. This information, called rock record, holds substantial details about climatic patterns and can help make predictions about climate change and surface temperature.

“Being able to go somewhere and see a rock that has preserved all its features is my passion. When we went to South Africa, we saw rocks that were 3 billion years old. At that time the Earth was much hotter than it is now and produced hot magma called komatiites. The komatiites are just one example of how the rock record can give precious insight into the conditions of the Earth in the past,” Alpheus said.

Alpheus also participated in a REU with the University of Maryland where she conducted geochemical analyses on the xenoliths she collected in South Africa. An active member of the National Association of Black Geoscientists, Alpheus presented her findings at the association's Annual Technical Conference in New Orleans in September 2016.

In addition to gaining research experience, Alpheus has gained valuable industrial experience in her home country. In the summer of 2017, Alpheus was an exploration intern at Shell in Trinidad and Tobago, where she conducted a case study evaluating the controls on gas column heights using seismic analysis, well-log interpretation, and statistical analysis on one of the company's offshore basins.

“My time at Shell was my first hands-on experience with petroleum geoscience. The team had very qualified members; it was exciting to be immersed in this group of creative thinkers,” said Alpheus.

Along with her passion for geology, Alpheus also brings a bit of Trinidad to Penn State’s student culture. She is involved with the Caribbean Student Association, which hosts the Annual Caribbean Experience, a showcase of the art, music and fashion of the various islands in the Caribbean.

“I look forward to it every year because it feels like being home for one moment,” Alpheus said.

Currently, Alpheus is completing her senior thesis in geosciences and looking forward to graduating this semester. She will return to Shell in Trinidad and Tobago for another internship and plans to later apply for graduate school.

Last Updated April 03, 2018