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Geology Graduate Student Recognized With Global Award for Outstanding Women Geoscientists

Research Explores Volcanic Magma Systems in the Sierra Nevada Wilderness
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Cal State Fullerton geology graduate student Samantha Dunn became fascinated with collecting rocks and exploring the great outdoors as a child.

Dunn credits her maternal grandmother, a middle school earth science teacher, who sparked her interest in learning about the natural world.

“Geology is my true passion,” Dunn said.

For her outstanding field mapping and data acquisition skills, Dunn is the recipient of the 2024 Brunton Award from the Association for Women Geoscientists. The worldwide organization introduces girls and young women to geoscience careers. She received a Brunton compass, which geologists use in the field.

“It’s gratifying to receive such a distinguished award. It makes me think, ‘I have put a lot of hard work and effort into my research, and I am worthy of this recognition,’” Dunn said.

Geology faculty member Valbone "Vali" Memeti
Valbone “Vali” Memeti, associate professor of geological sciences (Courtesy of Valbone “Vali” Memeti)

Her research adviser, Valbone “Vali” Memeti, associate professor of geological sciences, shared that Dunn is an exceptional student, researcher and geologic field mapper. A geologic map shows the distribution of different rock types and structures. 

“Samantha has a bright future that will include promoting field mapping to future generations,” Memeti said.

Dunn has received accolades for her research and grants to help pay for graduate school and her project, including a $2,500 grant from the Geological Society of America. In 2023, she was awarded a $10,000 research grant from Advancing Geochronology Science, Spaces and Systems.

At the annual South Coast Geological Society poster session in May, she won the best graduate poster award for her research project. She also received the Department of Geological Sciences Outstanding Graduate Award this year.

Dunn’s thesis project focuses on magmatic systems in the Sierra National Forest to learn more about inactive volcanic magma chambers and what triggers volcanic eruptions. 

She is investigating the connection between the volcanic and plutonic rocks at the 99- to 97-million-year-old Jackass Lakes pluton. Her project seeks to understand magma plumbing systems and the physical and compositional relationship of the plutonic and volcanic rocks.

“Samantha has the rare opportunity to tease out the answers to important questions that volcanologists and pluton geologists have been puzzling over for some time both in the field and analytically,” Memeti said.

Geology student Samantha Dunn in lab
Geology graduate student Samantha Dunn in the lab (Courtesy of Samantha Dunn)

Dunn is conducting a petrologic analysis (the study of rocks) of the Jackass Lakes pluton. Rarely are volcanic and plutonic units of similar age juxtaposed to one another, allowing a petrologic comparison to better understand the nature of magma plumbing systems in magmatic arcs (where magma is rising), she explained.

“This research can be used to study and better understand active volcanic arcs, a chain of volcanoes, such as the Cascades, a mountain range that extends from Northern California through Washington,” Dunn said.

Over the past two summers, Dunn spent a total of eight weeks backpacking, camping and mapping the geologic features in the Sierra Nevada. 

In the summer of 2022, Dunn and fellow student researchers used pack mules to take food and supplies into the wilderness field area. Last summer, Dunn backpacked to all her mapping destinations, which was quite the feat. 

The maps produced from this fieldwork will be submitted this summer to the U.S. Geological Survey’s EDMAP program, a mentor-guided program designed to teach students geologic mapping techniques through rigorous field mapping.

“The lab techniques and field skills I have learned at CSUF will only help me as I take my next steps,” Dunn said.

Her career goal is to become a college professor and researcher. She plans to apply to doctoral programs in the fall, including at universities in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. 

Dunn is working on completing lab work and writing her thesis, which she plans to finish in the fall. She also intends to submit her research for publication in a peer-reviewed, scientific geology journal. 

“My research experience has made me a better communicator, collaborator, writer, and overall scientist,” Dunn said. “Dr. Memeti set a high bar — and pushed me to achieve.”

Debra Cano Ramos