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Geology major awarded prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

May 8, 2019

Awarded one of the most competitive and respected scientific fellowships in the country, Sarah Shapley credits the many trips she took with her dad to national parks, the support system around her at NIU and luck.

Sarah Shapley

Those who worked with her in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences say Shapley devoured the unique research opportunities given to her at NIU and simply worked hard. She won a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship as part of the oldest graduate fellowship program in the science field.

“Anything through NSF is extraordinary to get. It’s not an easy process for that to occur by any means,” said Mark Frank, a professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, who mentored Shapley.

Graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in geology, Shapley of Naperville earned a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for her graduate studies. She will attend graduate school at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she will continue her research into hydrothermal ore deposits, including gold and copper.

“She took some of the things we’re doing here and ran with them in a new direction,” Frank said. “She has a range of experience on instruments that is way beyond what is typical for an undergraduate.

“Getting experience is just part of it. It’s also who she is. She’s very driven. She has a very strong work ethic, and she’s very much an ideal student.”

A presidential scholar, 21-year-old Shapley also is an honors student, Research Rookie, Geology Club vice president, Alpha Chi Sigma Professional Chemistry Fraternity member and a McKearn Fellow who minored in both Spanish and mathematical sciences. She has a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo and is treasurer of the NIU Jiu-Jitsu Club.

Upon learning of the NSF fellowship, she said she cried.

“A lot of people helped me along the way,” she said of her time at NIU. “I’m just so grateful to everyone who supported me.”

In Nevada, Shapley will have the opportunity to directly interact with mining companies. As she did at NIU with Frank, she will study how and why copper and gold deposits are formed in certain geological environments, as well as where they’re located.

“I’m hoping my research will allow me to better understand why ore deposits are formed. By better understanding how they’re formed, it makes finding them easier, as well as predicting where they’ll be for exploration,” Shapley said.

As a McKearn Fellow and a Spanish minor, she studied abroad in Chile and hopes to one day work there.

With more emphasis on renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, has come an increase in demand for the metals required to make the equipment for renewable energy sources, which makes the research even more important, Frank said.

“With that in mind, the companies out there exploring for these metals are always looking for good people,” he said. “There are not that many universities actually training people to do that. The work I’m doing is one of the top 10 places to do this in the U.S.”