February 11, 2020 | Science
As a child, Dr. Erin Walton spent a lot of time outdoors, amassing a huge collection of rocks — quartz pieces mainly. Those rocks ignited her imagination and passion for science at an early age, and it’s an origin story she shares with many of her physical sciences students.
“I teach a second-year mineralogy course at MacEwan and without fail every year, I have multiple students who come during my office hours to show me their own rock collections,” says Erin, associate professor of planetary geoscience. “I think it’s super cool that studying rocks is something a lot of people have an interest in from a young age.”
Erin specializes in the mineralogy of extraterrestrial materials, which she describes as looking at space rocks with high-powered microscopes. It's a career trajectory she never really thought possible until she presented her undergraduate honours thesis (which involved a 2.9-kilogram chondrite) at an international conference.
Until that point she hadn't had a single research role model who was a woman, but at the conference, she met people with different backgrounds from all over the world. It was then that she decided she wanted to become a professor.
“Undergraduate research opened so many doors for me and that’s why I think it’s so important to support and mentor students at MacEwan,” says Erin, who is currently one of MacEwan University’s Board of Governor’s Research Chairs.
Board of Governors Research Chairs
Two-year appointments recognize faculty members for their exceptional scholarly work.
Bachelor of Science student Haley Jurak and alum Tatiana Mijajlovic (’19) have both worked closely with Erin. Erin selected Haley for a summer student research assistant position that developed into an advanced independent study in earth sciences and eventually a Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA).
In declaring her intent to pursue a career in physical sciences research, Tatiana was given the opportunity by Erin to begin work on an independent research project cataloguing meteorites and characterizing an unclassified lunar meteorite.
“Initially reaching out to form a mentorship with someone was intimidating and nerve wracking,” recalls Tatiana. “But Erin has been incredibly informative and has helped me grow as a researcher.”
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Both Haley and Tatiana will join Erin at the 51st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas to present their research, and they have both applied to graduate schools to continue their work.
“Research is challenging, which is one of the reasons I’m so drawn to it, but Erin offered advice and counsel when I ran into roadblocks, allowing me to solve problems on my own,” says Haley. “She’s opened up many doors for me, which is why I am where I am today. I couldn’t have accomplished what I have without her support.”
Taking her students to present at an international conference is significant for Erin too — it brings her journey full circle. “Having that experience in my undergrad was pivotal, and so to foster that for my students is really fulfilling,” she says.