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Intern Spotlight: Kitri Spencer (Student Career)

Tags: internships

Kitri Spencer outside with sedimentary rocks in the background.
Kitri Spencer enjoying Zion National Park near Checkerboard Mesa.

This summer we’re introducing interns from Student Career, RESESS, and Geo-Launchpad programs to highlight their research projects and how EarthScope programs further their career goals.

Kitri Spencer (she/they) is a current master’s student in Applied Environmental Geosciences at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, where her main focus is geoscience education. This summer, she is one of two Educational Data & Resources Career Interns working with Dr. Beth Pratt-Sitaula. Through her master’s program, she’s gained valuable experience and insight into the creation of inclusive curricula. Kitri created a place-based geoscience curriculum for introductory-level college geoscience students. The course is based on introducing students to the geology of the San Juan River through a one-day rafting trip. Kitri hopes to have the course featured on SERC someday, where it can be shared and adapted for different audiences. 

Kitri also has a passion for geophysics, which she discovered through taking a required geophysics course in her master’s program. She had never taken geophysics before and felt unprepared for the math, but to her surprise she immensely enjoyed the class thanks to her engaging professor. After taking several more classes in geodesy and geodynamics from the same professor, Kitri had the opportunity to participate in the REYES Program at UC Berkeley for a summer. There, she worked on a project coupling the magmatic and tectonic history of the Farallon slab subduction.

Outside of academics, Kitri has long been interested in education and community involvement, and is a passionate natural science communicator. When she is not working, she spends time as a volunteer for her local nature center. There, she teaches classes and leads tours, which include nighttime firefly tours during the summer.  


What first got you interested in geosciences? What was your route to graduate school? 

It was kind of long and wind-y. I’ll start in my childhood. One of the places that I remember being so inspired by Earth science was actually the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. I grew up in SoCal. Originally, we took trips up to Central California, and I just absolutely fell in love with marine science. And at first I thought I was going to be a marine biologist, but through a series of talking with my parents and things, they were like, “Yeah, that might be a little bit too far reaching for a career.” I actually asked them a similar thing about becoming a geologist as well, and they were like, “No, no, I think that’s shooting too far.” So I ended up going to grad school, originally for a watershed science program. Right after I started, Covid hit and things in the program became very mixed around and I realized, “Oh, this isn’t totally where I want to be.” So that’s how I ended up switching into geoscience officially, and it’s amazing. I’ve just found my people there. It’s so cool. It’s like, “Ah, yes, this was where I meant to be, regardless of what my career prospects might be.” We’ll see.

How did you find this internship position, or what attracted you to it when you did it?

I heard about EarthScope through my geophysics courses. I heard about the original EarthScope project, the Transportable Array, since my professor had done some research with that pilot program. It seemed like so many of the papers that I’d read through the course of geophysics and geodesy were connected back to the array, or the EarthScope instrumentation. So I looked them up on a whim, and of course, their website design is amazing. I really dove in there, looked at some of the data, and then last year for the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous, I happened to get an email that EarthScope was sponsoring people to go. I had signed up for the conference, but I could only go for three days. That’s all I could afford. So I signed up for the EarthScope grant, and I got it, so I was able to stay at the conference the whole time, and it was amazing. I ended up on EarthScope’s email list, and so that’s how I heard about this educational data and resources internship. I got a recommendation from my geophysics professor, and here we are.

What specific projects or efforts are you working on this summer as part of your internship?

My main project is working on refining the IGUaNA GPR (ground penetrating radar) modules. In addition to bringing in my experience with course design and making them more accessible in terms of material, as well as in terms of designing for disability, I think I’ll be making some new manuals to help the EarthScope Primary Instrument Center have their equipment be more readily usable by teachers and educators. I’ll be making some new instruction manuals for that. They’ve also given me some GPR data profiles, which I think I will use to make some new assignments for some of the modules, which is exciting,so I’ve been learning how to process the data on the echo project software. The deliverables will probably be the refined GPR modules that are kind of up to the accessibility standards, as well as those new manuals and potentially new assessments for students based on that data. 

It sounds like you have to also learn new software and learn about new data types in order to do these projects. Do you feel like you’re learning a lot of new techniques that are related to your geophysics interest?

I had actually not worked with GPR data in my original geophysics course. We had learned about it, but never got to use the equipment—it wasn’t available to us, which was another reason why I think it’s so neat that EarthScope is able to provide these instruments to institutions that may not have them readily available. I’ve been learning so much about the whole process of doing a GPR survey and all of the data capabilities. Since GPR is a near surface kind of geophysical method, when I originally learned about it, I thought, “Oh, if it’s near-surface, how much applicability does that have?” This assignment has completely changed my view on it. There’s so many applications of GPR for civil engineering, for archeology, locating artifacts, learning more about our history, and they locate caves. So it’s a lot of fun, and learning about the ins and outs of what GPR can show, of course, it’s a tool in a toolset. So I have very much learned the value of that particular tool and its use cases. I’m banging my head against the software, but I’m really hoping to provide students with a really cool, deep, high-res view of the subsurface, so they can really see those features. I’m excited about looking underground. 

What does the day-to-day aspect of your work look like? 

Since I’m still in the early stages, I think I’m still spending a lot of time learning, researching, watching tutorials, and playing with the data myself. Though I do get a fair bit of time to exercise my instructional design muscle and actually go into SERC and correct typos or just making sure everything’s polished, even adding new things like graphics or buttons to the web pages to make it more navigable. In that, I do get a little bit of refinement done in a day, but I think most of my time these days is spent learning. It is so much learning and research, which has been a lot of fun, but I’m just trying to keep it all straight in my brain.

What’s been your favorite part of the program so far?

There’s so much; being able to really dive into geophysics and expand my own knowledge has been super rewarding. Being a part of EarthScope and being a part of that broader impact, and having my work make a difference. Meeting all the other interns. I was not expecting to find so much community in a remote internship, and it’s been so much fun being able to talk to everybody, and there’s still that connection there, even if it’s virtual. So yeah, gosh, it’s hard to pin down one thing. It’s just all the things.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the internship or EarthScope?

For whomever may see or read this (I actually told this to the RESESS interns during one of the workshops): I did not think I was equipped for graduate school at all. I did not think that I was equipped for the geosciences. I thought it was too far beyond my reach. I’d like to let people know I was absolutely wrong. There are opportunities in geoscience. There is so much to learn. There are so many unanswered research questions, and especially with DEI efforts becoming more prevalent, they are there for you. I would say there was definitely a place for me and, fortunately, I didn’t have to carve that place out too crazy hard. Geoscience can absolutely be a place for everybody. I think EarthScope is a great example of that. So don’t give up on your geoscience dreams. The rocks are waiting.

After Kitri finishes her master’s, she would like to pursue a career in a field that will allow her to flex her strong instructional design skills, such as teaching at a community college level, where she hopes to be as engaging as her geophysics professor at Utah State. However, Kitri hopes that one day she can enroll in a Ph.D. program for geophysics. She is keeping her eyes out for opportunities that combine geodynamics and geodesy. “I don’t know if that’ll come to pass,” Kitri says, “but I have some hopes.”