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Deep Impact

St. Mary’s student produces hot research on supervolcano

by Alex Z. Salinas (B.A. ’11)

Hiking trail at Yellowstone National Park.

Mathematics and Physics junior Rebeca Gurrola and a small team of researchers hike a trail at Yellowstone National Park.

In summer 2017, Rebeca Gurrola and a small team of scientists embarked on a journey at Yellowstone National Park. The sights at the nation’s first national park were wondrous to be sure: colorful hot springs, majestic mountains, powerful geysers and lush forests. But danger was also afoot: heat waves, giant mosquitoes, torrential storms and other potentially dangerous wildlife (specifically, bears).

The team’s mission was to set up equipment at 45 predetermined locations in Yellowstone to collect magnetotellurics data — measurements of subsurface electrical and hydrothermal activity — to learn more about the park’s underground supervolcano. With this information, scientists can better discover how solar storms affect certain landscapes, which can then help improve how and where structures on land are built.

The Yellowstone Supervolcano, as it’s called, rests under a region of the park that stretches 34 by 35 miles. Thousands of times more powerful than a regular volcano, the Yellowstone Supervolcano last erupted about 664,000 years ago. It’s one of 20 supervolcanoes in the world.

Student Rebeca Gurrola stands with research group at Yellowstone.

Gurrola (second from right) stands with some of her research teammates from other universities.

“We had to hike to many of the locations, some as far as 12 miles off the track,” said Gurrola, a junior Mathematics and Physics major. “Carrying around a 40-pound pack, I was really overwhelmed that first week. I had never been camping before.”

Gurrola, with “strong encouragement” from some professors at St. Mary’s University, applied and was accepted into a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program through the National Science Foundation. She went to Oregon State University, where she was paired with another college student, who then both joined a team of researchers for the ongoing project at Yellowstone.

Gurrola said that while the method of magnetotellurics has been around for years, technology has only recently caught up, so the practice has gained popularity. It took years for the project she joined at Yellowstone to be approved, as there is increased governmental red tape with conducting research at national parks.

While camping at Yellowstone and battling Mother Nature, Gurrola said her mom “was scared to death,” and received calls from Mom frequently, though reception was bad.

The Celestine Pool at Yellowstone.

The Celestine Pool, a hot spring, at Yellowstone National Park.

Originally from Tolleson, Arizona, Gurrola comes from a tight-knit family, and is the second-oldest of five siblings. She attended La Joya Community High School in Avondale, Arizona, where she graduated valedictorian.

“During my senior year, my goals were to go to community college and get a job,” Gurrola said. “Being a first-generation college student, I didn’t have high expectations for myself.”

During this time, Gurrola participated in a college preparation program through an organization called AGUILA Youth Leadership Institute. A staff member there had a connection with David Krause, Director of Financial Assistance at St. Mary’s. That was how Gurrola first heard about St. Mary’s.

“To be honest, I was determined not to go to St. Mary’s,” she said. “I wanted to stay close to my family. I applied to schools in New Mexico and Arizona.”

Rebeca Gurrola sets up equipment at Yellowstone National Park.

Gurrola sets up equipment at Yellowstone National Park.

But as time passed, Gurrola eventually believed that St. Mary’s was right for her, so she took the plunge.

After her first year, she switched majors to Mathematics and Physics, realizing her favorite classes were in those subjects. Still, Gurrola didn’t think she was “smart enough.”

Labeling this her “impostor syndrome,” Gurrola admitted she deals with self-confidence issues, but it’s at the end of long weeks of studying — or, for example, after a hard day’s work collecting data on a supervolcano at a national park — when she realizes she’s stepped up to the plate.

“My driver is my family,” she said. “I want to be a good example for my siblings. The sacrifices our parents (originally from Mexico) made for us — helping pay for our education, buying a house, providing food and clothing — were huge, and I want to help provide for them.”

In December 2017, Gurrola presented her summer research at an American Geophysical Union conference in New Orleans, with 20,000 people in attendance. In March, she traveled with professors from the Department of Physics to Los Angeles, where she presented at an American Physics Society conference.

“The conferences were great experiences. I saw different types of research and pathways you could take within geophysics,” she said.

Gurrola was recently accepted into another REU program, through which she plans to spend this summer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, on a nanomaterials and energy project.

Gurrola credits the family atmosphere at St. Mary’s, and the open-door policy of professors, as reasons for her success.

“The faculty here push you to do more,” she said. “They push you to do your best, and I don’t think that happens everywhere.”