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Laying a foundation: Bone Scholar carving out career in geology field

Woman standing by mountain

Geology student Jackie Epperson was recently named a Bone Scholar, the highest undergrad honor given at Illinois State University.

The summer after her freshman year, Jackie Epperson worked in a lab testing water samples. That’s when she decided she didn’t want to do that for the rest of her life.

Growing up, she was on the school bus two hours a day, riding past cornfields. That gave her a lot of time to think, but she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. She knew she wanted to work outdoors, but thought those jobs didn’t pay enough. When she enrolled at Illinois State University, she still hadn’t decided. She took an earth science class her first semester, and that’s when she figured it out. Only eight weeks into it, her advisor asked if she wanted to go on a spring break geology field trip. She jumped at it.

“That’s when I realized how much I love it,” she said.

She loves rocks–young rocks that are only 8,000 years old, and 9 million-year-old rocks that have much more of a story to tell. It’s the detective work that intrigues her.

“You go out with a blank notebook and you look at a rock formation and there’s all these clues and you put the story together,” she said. “You can look at a rock and say it’s there because there was a mountain-building event.”

She has been named a 2020-2021 Bone Scholar, Illinois State’s highest honor for undergraduates. She was recognized for her involvement with the hydrogeology program, working as a teaching assistant in structural geology and stratigraphy, and research that led to presentations at national conferences. One of her projects was looking into Quaternary Period sediments in Baja California Sur in Mexico.

Quaternary?

“It’s just a time period,” she said, explaining she was working with young sediments, those only a few thousand years old. “It’s hard to wrap your head around how long the time span is of geology, but that’s what’s cool about it. You feel the world is very small and very young. It’s crazy to think the world is just clues to earth history.”

Last summer, she did an internship in Mexico.

“It was the best three weeks of my life,” she said. “It was life-changing. I had never even been on a plane before. I had to figure out how to get on a connecting flight. It was a completely new place with new geology and the culture was different for me too.”

When she says she’s majoring in geology, a common question she gets is: What are you going to do with that?

“Where I grew up, no one is a geologist,” she said. “People don’t know about it. I can go so many places and do so many things with it, you just don’t hear about it a lot.”

She could pursue civil engineering, work as a staff geologist for an oil or mining company, or be a mapper with a state or the U.S. Geological Survey.

That last one particularly appeals to her. It’s perfect for someone who likes to do something different every day, she said. And, geologists travel. One thing she may have to leave at home are her rocks.

“I have too many rocks,” she said, laughing. “Whenever I move, they are so heavy.”

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