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When she was just five years old, Samantha McComb ’20, found herself staring through a glass case at a beautiful purple amethyst geode at the New York State Museum in Albany. The following day, she mentioned how much she liked the sparkling crystal-lined rock and her mom drove her back to the museum’s gift shop to buy it. Unfortunately, it was gone, and the young McComb was devastated. However, what she didn’t realize was that the museum was also hosting the annual James Campbell Memorial Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show that day.

“The top floor of the museum was full of vendors and geologists with rocks as far as the eye could see. It was like Christmas morning. After walking around for over an hour, I came across this amazing amethyst geode, about five times the size of the one I saw the day before. To this day, that 13-pound geode is my prized possession. Ever since then, I have been going to that show every year. That event sparked my love for geology,” McComb said.

After taking an earth science class in high school she was even more convinced that she should pursue a career in geology. Her next step was choosing the right university. During her junior year, she reached out to Dr. Michael Rygel, the chair of SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Geology, to inquire about class offerings, the strength of the department and the fate of alumni after graduation. Rygel took the time to paint a picture of life at SUNY Potsdam and the opportunities in the geology department. He also discussed the success of alumni like Erin Wagner ’13, who went on to work for Exxon Mobil.

McComb was sold!

“Pursuing a degree in the geology department at SUNY Potsdam is probably the best decision I’ve ever made. I would not have gone anywhere else. I had a full ride to Oswego, but no one could beat Dr. Rygel. I just kind of figured out that this is where I was meant to be."

McComb found her home at SUNY Potsdam, as well as support from faculty who shared her passion for geology and who put students first. “My favorite professors have to be Dr. Quinton and Dr. Rygel, without a doubt. They’re always there for questions, you can always find them in the department. They’ll be working on something else and they’ll immediately put it down to help me with homework or answer a question that I might have. They’re very good at explaining and they give real-life examples about what we discussed in class,” she said.

Her favorite part of geology is the deep, critical thinking needed to look at a sequence bed and think backward to answer important questions about rock formations. “How did this get here? Why did this happen? What is older? The story that the rocks tell you, that’s the part that interests me the most,” she said.

In the summer of 2017, just after finishing her freshman year on campus, McComb had the chance to conduct field research with senior Brandon Keough ’18, who was working on his Presidential Scholars project at the Clifton Formation in New Brunswick. While in Canada, she was tasked with hiking up the cliffs and describing the rock stratigraphy for Keough’s project. She was awestruck, as she walked along the shore with the ocean on one side and an enormous cliff on the other—one of the most unique land formations she has seen to date. “I got to see what it was like to be a geologist in the field. Something about it just roped me in! Being able to help him with his project made me realize what I really wanted to do,” McComb said.

In 2018 McComb headed out to Montana for the Indiana University’s geologic field campa rigorous six-week course that involved extensive hiking and challenging field practices. After long days in the field, working around 52 hours per week, she took Sundays to pursue her own Presidential Scholars Project—a carbon isotope analysis of the Madison Group carbonates. With the help of her professors (Quinton and Rygel were there as well), she collected carbonate samples—which she drilled, powdered and cut into thin sections for carbon isotope analysis—and then create a stratigraphic sequence of the Sappington section to help interpret changes in sea level and the historic deposition environment. So far, her research has resulted in four poster presentations. After graduation, she plans to start working on a manuscript with her SUNY Potsdam advisors.

"The goal of the project is to further our understanding of carbon isotopic controls, primarily changes in sea level. We did this by analyzing the relationship between the carbon isotopic trend and changes in depositional environment to see if there are patterns that can be seen with both large and small scale changes in relative sea level."

One of the hurdles of attending the field camp and doing research in Montana is that it’s very expensive; the field camp alone costs $7,000. McComb proved to be not only a motivated young geologist, but also very business savvy by applying for grants. She was awarded a $1,500 grant from the Geological Society of America to pay for her research analysis. She also received $750 from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers to help with transportation costs to Montana, $425 from the Erin Wagner ’13 Field Camp Experience Scholarship and $1,800 through SUNY Potsdam’s Presidential Scholars Program for her researchleading to a tuition-free opportunity for McComb.

McComb presents her research during SUNY Potsdam's 2019 Learning and Research Fair.

In addition to her undergraduate research, she was also a research intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2019. She worked with renowned paleontologist, Dr. Brian Huber, to study Late Cretaceous planktonic foraminifera where she looked at the eruption of the Deccan Traps in India, and evidence of extinction related to that event.

Her project was presented as a poster in the museum and as an oral presentation at the annual Geological Society of America meeting in Phoenix, Arizonaremarkable accomplishments for an undergraduate student.  Her work with Huber with be continuing this summer as she utilizes microscopes to examine samples and culminates by completing a manuscript for publication. 

Every experience, starting with her early classes with Rygel and Quinton, has prepared her for an amazing career in geology. After graduation, she will be attending UMass Amherst as part of their M.S./Ph.D. program in geology. Recently, McComb received the National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship, a highly competitive fellowship that is open to undergraduate and graduate students across all STEM disciplines pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited universities throughout the country. The five-year-long fellowship will provide her with three full years of funding, including school tuition and a stipend. 

In addition to that, McComb received UMass Amherst's Spaulding-Smith fellowship, awarded to outstanding doctoral students from historically underrepresented groups from STEM fields. That fellowship will provide a similar fundingfull tuition and a stipend during her first and final year at UMass, the combination of which secures five years of funding for the Ph.D. track program. Because both fellowships offer a stipend, she won't be burdened with the additional work of being a teaching or research assistantallowing her to focus 100 percent of her attention on her studies.

As she wraps up her last semester at SUNY Potsdam, McComb received one more prestigious honorthe Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. The Chancellor's Award was created in 1997 to honor SUNY students who excel academically and show involvement in leadership roles, athletics, community service, creative and performing arts, campus involvement, or career achievement. 

As she enters graduate school, she has her sights set on becoming a professional researcher at a museum, or become a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution in the Northeast, much like her alma mater.

For more information about SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Geology, please visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/majors/geology.

Article and photos by Jason Hunter