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From Researcher to Conference Presenter: Joe Vaughn ’19

Jan 08, 2018


Joe Vaughn"I decided to make R-MC my college because I wanted an individualized experience—one in which I could get to know my professors in small classes, and get the help I'd need to succeed," says Joe Vaughn '19.  "I am continually impressed with what Randolph-Macon College has to offer."

Vaughn, an environmental studies major (with an emphasis in geology) and English minor, is an active member of the campus community. He serves as a Resident Assistant; is a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity and the National Residence Hall Honorary; and he looks forward to studying abroad this spring at the Ireland University College of Cork, where he will further his study of geology.

Discovering the Joy of Research
Vaughn recently discovered how much he enjoys the research process. In summer 2017, he participated in R-MC's Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which offers students the opportunity to conduct nine weeks of research with the guidance of a faculty mentor. Under the mentorship of Environmental Studies and Geology Professor Michael Fenster, Vaughn studied the coastal evolution of the central part of Virginia's Delmarva Peninsula. He aimed to determine how multiple sea-level rises and falls beginning about 120,000 years ago created the landscape and subsurface "architecture" of this region.

From Researcher to Conference Presenter
"The end goal of my SURF project was to reconstruct the sea-level history for the area in order to predict future sea-level impacts on Virginia's coast," explains Vaughn, who conducted a month of field work near the town of Wachapreague on the Eastern Shore. He worked closely with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who lent him their equipment and assistance. Following the field work and data collection, Vaughn spent a month processing and analyzing his data in a lab in Macon F. Brock, Jr. Hall, R-MC's new science building.

Vaughn recently presented his research at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans, which had more than 21,000 attendees.

"We were surrounded by the brightest minds from all across the world, and I networked with brilliant scientists from various fields of study," says Vaughn. "I made wonderful connections that will allow me to continue my research as well as seek employment after college. The conference was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is a unique opportunity for an undergraduate to experience what it is like to work as a professional in scientific research."

Fenster, the Stephen H. Watts Professor of Science, met with Vaughn throughout the SURF process and encouraged him to apply to the conference.

"By understanding how past coastal landscapes formed, we can understand the mechanisms which control the ‘behavior’ of the modern-day islands and the impact of climate change (current sea-level rise) on modern coastal systems," says Fenster, who, along with R-MC Physics Professor Rachel Dominguez, also presented at the conference. The two developed a new mathematical model that determines beach erosion potential based on the cumulative impact of coastal storms.  "I'm proud of Joe's accomplishments. His strong work ethic and ability to understand complex geologic principles made it possible for him to make a valuable scientific contribution and to present his research at a prestigious international conference. I have no doubt those traits will serve Joe very well after R-MC. We also hope to have a manuscript ready to submit to a scientific journal before he graduates."

"Professor Fenster's assistance and guidance were instrumental toward the completion of the project," says Vaughn, who plans a career as a geologist. "His generosity and optimism allowed me to experience true cutting-edge research as well as apply myself in ways I didn’t think were possible. His support both in and out of the lab inspired me to take on challenges and see them through to the end."