It’s a little unusual for undergraduates to present their research at a national science conference—far more so that an undergraduate wins best-in-class honors against all the graduate students and other undergrads presenting their projects.
Such was the case for Daren McGregor ’12, who won the Paleontological Society’s Poster Award for 2010 at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Denver last November.
“I’d be very surprised if an undergraduate has won this award before,” said Peter Harries, associate professor of geology at the University of South Florida, who announced the award in January.
“Yeah,” McGregor said, taking the news in stride. “Dr. Gastaldo [Prof. Robert Gastaldo, chair of the Geology Department] has been more excited about it than I am, probably.”
The modest McGregor, from Mt. Vernon, N.Y., came to Colby thinking about majoring in history. He took an introductory geology course to fulfill a science requirement, but it was really the one-credit seminar where students read research and hear visiting scientists talk about their work that intrigued him, he said.
McGregor wanted to do summer field research following his sophomore year, and Gastaldo helped with an application to work on a project near Wilmington, N.C., studying an extinction event around the Plio-Pleistoscene time boundary through shellfish remains in what his abstract calls “the fossiliferous Waccamaw Formation.”
Studying fossilized clams and snails from two million years ago, McGregor and his coauthors, professors from Cornell and UNC-Wilmington, filled in a piece of the puzzle about the extinction event when they found that the Cape Fear river samples told a slightly different story from existing records from the western Atlantic.
Harries, who compiled the evaluations that led to the paleontology award, estimated that 15 to 20 percent of poster presenters were undergraduates, with the rest graduate students. He said judges were impressed by McGregor’s poster, but even more by his command of the subject and his ability to communicate the science. “He just knew what he was doing,” Harries said.
Colby sent five students to the Denver GSA meeting, and Harries confirmed that it's a noticeable if not disproportionate delegation. “Colby definitely has a pretty strong contingent.”
Next up for McGregor: presentation of related research at the Southeast regional meeting of the Paleontological Society this spring. Beyond that he hopes to do more summer research and eventually to attend graduate school, with an eye toward a career in academe.
“I’ve kind of drunk the paleo Kool-aid, so to speak,” McGregor said, quoting one of the geology professionals that he expects to see at meetings for decades to come.