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Pay it forward and paying tribute: talking to undergraduates at my alma mater

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last weekend I had the supreme pleasure of spending the weekend at my alma mater, St. Lawrence University. I returned for the 8th St. Lawrence University Geology Alumni Conference, a gathering of faculty, students and alumni to talk about grad school, careers in geology and drink beer.

The primary goal is to “pay it forward” by talking with undergraduates. This year we also paid tribute to Dr. J. Mark Erickson, a long time St. Lawrence professor who recently retired.

There are three main parts to the conference:

  • Opportunities for networking (mostly revolving around food and beverages)
  • Research and professional talks. I know more about how the oil industry uses biostratigraphers (thanks, Art!) and more about the structural geology of the Adirondacks (thanks Graham!)
  • Panel discussions about grad school and careers

I was able to attend one of the first alumni conferences when I was an undergrad, and I am happy to return and help out the current students in any way I can.

In the “pay it forward” portion of the weekend, I ended up a member of the career panel.  I was joined by folks who work in mineral exploration, environmental consulting, oil and gas exploration, and other careers that geology undergraduate students are actually interested in. I’m a realistic person, and I knew going in that no one in the audience had ever thought about librarianship as a career. And that’s okay.

I shared a bit about what science librarians do (hint: I don’t check books in and out all day), and the path I took to get here. I wanted to let the undergraduates know that it is okay if they don’t know what they want to be when they grow up yet.  They have time to figure it out (it certainly took me a while).

One of the interesting aspects of this conference is that as the sole librarian in attendance, I answer a lot of information related questions for the undergraduates and the alumni. Why is it so hard to locate a paper when I have the author and year? (Answer: often it is problems with author disambiguation). How can I see titles and abstracts of journal articles so I know which ones to ask my company to buy? (Answer: I’ll send you a list of resources). I really like these conversations, and hopefully my answers are helpful.

Near the end of the conference, I presented a talk about the contributions of my former professor, Dr. J. Mark Erickson, to the geological literature. Dr. Erickson, has been a champion of undergraduate research for 40 years, long before it was fashionable, and his publication record supports this. Dr. Erickson co-authored with his students on most of his publications, and had a remarkably consistent publishing career. In a brief biography written for the conference program, Dr. E mentioned his motto, which seems to sum things up rather well,

Know your self, know your stuff, know your students.

I’ll keep working on that.  Thanks, Dr. E.

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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