New Faculty: Marsha Allen FP’10

New faculty member Marsha Allen FP’10 isn’t a stranger to Mount Holyoke College. She came back to teach because the faculty’s focus on diversity and equity and on involving students in research was exactly what she was looking for.

Almost as soon as the job interview started, Marsha Allen knew the assistant professor of earth science role at Mount Holyoke was the job she wanted. “At the time, I already had a few industry offers,” said the hydrogeologist, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She added, “But when I came to Mount Holyoke for the interview, it was like, ‘I think this job is perfect for me.’”

In part, that feeling came from campus being like a second home for Allen, a class of 2010 Frances Perkins Scholar. But it was also immediately clear that she’d fit right in with her peers in the geology and geography department. The faculty’s focus on diversity and equity and on involving students in research was exactly what she was looking for, she said.

Allen is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and her research as a hydrogeologist focuses on fractured rock aquifers. The rocks beneath our feet are littered with cavities and crevices. These crevices can hold a surprising amount of water — and water can even flow through the channels in rocks, forming large reservoirs that humans could pull from in times of drought.

Allen’s research centers on figuring out how much water is stored underground and how to best utilize it. Though she has spent much of her career looking at fractured-rock aquifers in the Caribbean, she said that “there are a ton of fractured rock aquifers in Massachusetts that have never been thoroughly studied, and research could start right here on campus.” That makes bringing students into the field especially easy, which is something Allen is deeply committed to. “Students need to be able to try fieldwork. It’s a whole different ball game when students apply for jobs in industry and they have no field experience,” she said.

Also on her docket is setting up an on-campus lab with an advanced isotope and gas concentration analyzer. “What this instrument does is it vaporizes water molecules to measure the mass of the hydrogen and oxygen isotopes,” she said. The result is measured against a global standard, allowing Allen to see whether there are signals of evaporation or recharge at the sample location. She also uses environmental tracers to calculate the age of the groundwater residence time and to create three-dimensional water models to predict future recharge patterns in the aquifer.

In addition to being excited to teach classes and take her students out into the field, Allen is also looking forward to being a mentor to and a role model for women of color interested in becoming scientists. “I have tried to have a well-rounded life: I love fashion; I used to model; I consider myself a mini artist; I do needlepoint beading; my new love is refurbishing furniture. I’m a Black woman from the Caribbean with an accent. I want students to see that scientists can look like me. But I also want them to see that you can be a scientist and have a well-rounded life.”

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