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Researcher of the Month

November 2023

Victoria CastleVictoria Castle 

Major: Geology 

Research Mentor:  Dr. Marine Frouin, Department of Geosciences

After presenting at a national geoscience research conference, Victoria Castle returned to campus with renewed excitement about her future path: “Hearing them talk about their research.... definitely reinforced  to me how much I truly want this, and what area specifically of geoscience I love. It essentially taught me that I went into the right field, and that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing right now at this moment.”

Victoria Castle is a Geology major who has been doing research since January 2023 under the mentorship of Dr. Marine Frouin (Dept. of Geosciences) on luminescence dating. The opportunity to participate in full-time research this past summer was made possible through a Velay Fellowship award funded by the Panaphil Foundation (PI: Dr. Maria Nagan, Associate Dean for Curriculum, College of Arts & Sciences). The overall goal of Victoria's research in the luminescence dating lab is to learn more about the chronology of alluvial deposits sampled from two terraces left by the Udorka River near Perspektywiczna Cave and is part of an international, interdisciplinary project investigating early human history and environmental changes during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition in southern Poland (supported with funding to Dr. Frouin from the US Israel Binational Science Foundation). Victoria’s recent presentation on “Luminescence dating of terrace development in the Udorka Valley, Poland” at the Geological Society of America/GSA Connects 2023 meeting in Pittsburgh, PA was supported by  an ERG/Expanding Representation in Geosciences scholarship from the Geological Society of America(GSA), and a URECA mini-grant award. For her senior departmental honors thesis, Victoria is collaborating with Dr. Alex Elvis Badillo at Indiana State University to contribute to the knowledge of Mesoamerica's history, using luminescence dating to establish a chronology of the construction of ancient structures in Rural Quiechapa, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Victoria is currently applying to graduate programs in the Geosciences, and is eager to make contributions in the fields of geochronology, geomorphology, and quaternary science. As she reflects on her unique training in the lab, which involved learning to do experiments in the dark, she notes: “I just love bench work, and doing sample preparation. The process of taking a small fraction of a sample, and then being able to calculate an age based off of it, is kind of like magic…. there is something so special about how far we've come with science and technology that we're able to take something so small and have it tell us a story almost like a book, about what was going on in that area.”  Victoria credits the Velay Fellowship program with providing valuable experience in scientific presentation; and with providing opportunities for her to connect with her peers and with other women scientists (see also link to Victoria Castle’s Velay video).

A graduate of Massapequa HS, Victoria obtained an Associate’s degree in Science from Nassau Community College prior to transferring to Stony Brook for her geology degree. She has 6 years of work experience as a Starbucks barista and shift supervisor, and 2 years of experience as a vinyasa yoga teacher. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

See Videos - introducing VELAY FELLOWS, Summer '23

The Interview:

Karen: How long have you been involved in research? What is your research about?

Victoria. I started doing research in Dr. Marine Frouin’s Luminescence Dating Research Laboratory in January of 2023, and have been focusing on the application of  luminescence dating to determine the depositional age of alluvial deposits from the Udorka River in southern Poland.  I felt really drawn to the Geology major, and I wanted to be able to experience it more fully, by doing hands-on research. Every time I sat down in lecture, and was learning about the incredible things that geologists were doing  to expand what we knew about our earth, I realized that I wanted to be a part of that, and that I wanted to contribute to what we know about this world. So when I initially went on to the Stony Brook Geosciences Department webpage, I looked into research projects that resonated with my interests, projects that I thought were really fascinating. I had just taken historical geology with Dr. Joel Horowitz, and I had briefly learned about luminescence dating, but didn’t know that much about it. I really liked Geochronology. And I loved studying paleo environments and paleo climates. So I knew that luminescence dating would be a tool that you could apply to the areas of geology that I really knew and loved. I contacted Dr. Frouin about working with her group, and then had the opportunity to take a 487 research class with her last spring.

When you first joined the luminescence lab, did you have much background experience with the equipment or with the techniques you needed to use to do the research?

I was pretty much learning from square one. Both Dr. Marine Frouin and Taylor Grandfield, the Ph.D. student who mentors me, were super helpful in having me learn the protocols and the procedures that we use in the luminescence lab. One thing that I don't think I fully understood going into it is that all the samples in the luminescence lab are entirely light sensitive because If they're exposed to any light, they can lose the radiation that we measure in order to determine their chronology. So I had to learn how to not only operate these all these machines as well as the chemical treatments and density separations we do in the preparatory process, but I had to learn how to do it all in the dark!...It was a really awesome, unique experience.

What do you enjoy the most about doing research?

My favorite part about research is pushing the boundaries of knowledge in a field that I absolutely love. I like it when you don't get an answer that you were expecting, because it opens the door to a million more possibilities to continue looking into. And in addition to that, I just love bench work, and doing sample preparation. The process of taking a small fraction of a sample, and then being able to calculate an age based off of it, is kind of like magic. Luminescence dating can date a single piece of sand for hundreds of thousands of years, just by its capacity to retain radiation from its natural environment after it was deposited and buried. And there is something so special about how far we've come with science and technology that we're able to take something so small and have it tell us a story almost like a book, about what was going on in that area. What was the paleo environment like? What was the climate like at that time? How long ago was this one piece of sand deposited and buried by whatever event we are dating?

I also feel that  the more I physically get to do lab work, the more I'm able to apply it to my degree. What I'm learning in person helps me to understand the connections between research and what geologists do, to what I'm learning in a textbook or a lecture. Right now, I'm working on fluvial terraces from rivers, and in so many geology classes we talk about high and low energy depositional settings. We're talking about the size grains that get deposited by a really high energy flowing river versus a low energy flowing river, and so in my research I'm able to see super fine grains maybe in one layer or grains that are a little bit more coarse in another layer, and I'm able to apply what I'm learning in the lab to what I'm learning in the classroom.  It helps fill in those gaps between textbook learning and lectures, to real life .

Did it take a while to get the hang of doing hands-on work in the laboratory?

There's always a learning curve. The more times that I put myself into the lab and did bench work and the physical work of sample preparation, the more comfortable I got in the lab. Of course when I first started, there's always that nervousness you get, when you think:  am I doing this correctly? Am I following the protocols that I should be following? And over time, if you care enough about it, and you're passionate enough about it,  and you really want to be there, eventually everything just kind of starts falling in line because you're learning the reasons why. I remember initially I was anxiously trying to remember the order for doing sample preparation. What step comes first? Is it isopropanol?... The key thing you need to remember is the why behind what you're doing. And once you're knowledgeable about why you doing something, you're able to apply it instead of just trying to remember a series of steps.

How have your mentors helped you?

All of them have been super helpful, not only in teaching me the physical application of luminescence dating, and the different applications for luminescence  dating in geomorphology, paleo environments, geo archeology, etc…but in pointing me in the correct direction for my career.  They've helped me find scholarships to apply to — and other opportunities such as the Velay Fellowship program that I participated in last summer.  Dr. Frouin, and Mariana (the post doc in our lab),  and Taylor (the graduate student I work with), have directed me to grad school opportunities, and have all been super helpful in looking over my applications and proposals, and preparing me for the future of my career. I definitely wouldn't be where I am without the mentors that I've met at Stony Brook.

How did you benefit from being in the Velay Fellowship program this past summer?

The Velay fellowship allowed me to continue research full-time over the summer instead of working a part time job, and financially supported me so that I was able to work on my own independent research project and get so much further than I ever would have been able to do just doing research for credit. I also had the opportunity to participate in my first symposium, which gave me an amazing amount of experience and confidence that I was able to apply just recently when I attended and presented at GSA, my first geological convention. It helped me with science communication. It gave me a lot of different tools that I was able to use at the conference itself for networking and for reaching out to other scientists and learning from them as well. And finally, the Velay program allowed me to meet a bunch of like-minded super strong female scientists from Stony Brook, and hear about their experiences, and how they are paving the way for women and STEM moving forward.

Tell me about the Geology conference you attended. What was that experience like?

So just this week, I was in Pittsburgh and I presented a poster at the Geological Society of America's Annual National convention called GSA Connects. My poster was on the use of luminescence  dating to determine the chronology of fluvial and alluvial deposits in the Udorka Valley of Poland. I was able to not only present my research , but to network with a bunch of really inspiring scientists from around the country, as well as meet other young scientists in the “Onto the future” program of GSA. I was able to listen to scientists that I looked up to in the field and had studied but never really even imagined meeting. I got to talk to experts in the field who were recruiting grad students for their projects. Hearing them talk about their research and what they're going to be working on moving forward definitely reinforced  to me how much I truly want this, and what area specifically of geoscience I love. It essentially taught me that I went into the right field, and that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing right now at this moment. ...Already, I miss it so much. You go into this world where everyone's super  passionate about the same things you are. It was an amazing experience!

What advice do you have for other students about undergraduate research?

I would 100% tell them to get involved in research as an undergraduate. It might be something that you're unsure of. Maybe you have no experience in research , or don't know where to start. But contact your department, reach out to a professor that you know and knows you well, and let them know that you're interested in research. Don't be afraid of it, because it was the best decision I ever made for not only myself, and learning and growing as an individual, but also for my career, and for what I want to do with my life.

Looking back, how would you sum up the benefits of having been involved in undergraduate research?

I feel I am way more prepared for grad school, having done undergraduate research than I would have been if I didn't. Not only does undergraduate research prepare you for the time management skills you need for grad school or the pace of independent research. …But it also allowed me to get mentorship that I would not have gotten without my research experience. I've learned so much from being around other graduate students and from going to the conference. I already have had a taste of what a graduate school is, and what it's like doing research in academia or in graduate studies.

…. Looking back, it's almost surreal. A year ago, I was thinking: can I do this? I didn't believe I could do it at first.  And here I am, a year later coming  back from my first conference; having done a full time fellowship over the summer; and having all this experience in  something I didn't have much experience in, realizing that I am so much more fully capable than I thought I was. It's such a short time, and so meaningful.