Just say yes!

Nelia W. Dunbar ’83 sits in an ice cave conducting field work in Antartica.

Nelia W. Dunbar ’83 conducting fieldwork in an ice cave in Antartica.

Nelia W. Dunbar ’83

Director, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources

Academic focus: geology major

Thesis: Mineralogical and geochemical investigation of Cascade Range tephra

Advanced degrees: M.S. and Ph.D. in geology, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

Dissertation: Investigation of volatile contents and degassing systematics of rhyoltic magmas from the Taupo Volcanic Zone, New Zealand.

After completing my geology degree at Mount Holyoke in 1983, I moved to New Mexico to start work on a master’s degree at New Mexico Tech. I hadn’t committed to a particular research topic, but I was interested in a volcanology project on the Taupo Volcano, in New Zealand.

My advisor, however, whose area of research specialization was Antarctic volcanism, didn’t have funding in place for the required field travel, so I started shopping around for other projects to work on. Then, late in my first semester of graduate school, one of the field team members slated to work in Antarctica during the 83-84 austral summer field season dropped out due to illness. This happened just a few weeks before the team was due to head south, traveling through New Zealand to get to McMurdo Station, in Antarctica.

My advisor came to me with the offer of being a field hand in Antarctica and then stopping over in New Zealand on the way north to do the fieldwork for the Taupo project. I immediately jumped at the chance, but not without a certain level of reservation, as I was going to have to bail out of my teaching assistant responsibilities and finish up all of my first-semester graduate classes in a very shortened time frame since the departure to Antarctica would be in mid-November. I would also be leaving all of my newly acquired fellow graduate student friends for several months.

In the end, it all worked out. I had a terrific field season in Antarctica, in part working on the active Mount Erebus volcano, and the New Zealand volcanology project was fantastic.

The fieldwork in Antarctica really clicked for me, and I’ve gone back for another 23 field seasons in a range of roles — from field assistant to principal or co-principal investigator on research projects funded by the National Science Foundation.

So, how does this relate to being a geology major at Mount Holyoke? I think that the sense of curiosity about science, the love of fieldwork and the self-confidence that my professors, Martha Godchaux, Thom Davis, Mike Retelle instilled in Mount Holyoke geology majors gave me the enthusiasm and excitement to grab the chance to go on a really exciting adventure, and not worry about the possible downsides — of which there turned out to be none! I really value my experience with these great mentors, and I know that they shaped my career in significant and positive ways.