Geo-Launchpad program gives FRCC undergrads the opportunity to do real-world scientific research.

My name is Nick Shepherd. I was born in 1995 and grew up in Minneapolis, MN for most of my life.

I’ve had a life with a ton of jobs and places I lived that I’ve tried to call home. I never really found this “home” type of feeling until I made my way to Fort Collins, Colorado, in March of 2020.

As a person who’s always had a passion for the outdoors, I decided to study forestry at Front Range Community College in the fall of 2021. My love for nature and the restoration of the environment has been—and always will be—an important part of me.

As a student, Front Range has offered a wonderful experience when it comes to natural resources classes. The variety of options is what inspired me to find an opportunity that would include real-world job experience.

Finding a Research Opportunity

As I was looking for internships that would help propel my academic career, I found a remarkably interesting opportunity on the FRCC website called the Geo-Launchpad STEM Internship.

Nick and other interns in the forest
(That’s me wearing the glasses and camouflage bucket hat)

Geo-Launchpad is an 11-week paid summer internship for community college students. This program exposes the interns to geoscience careers, assists in professional development and communication skills, and provides research-ready skills.

It’s hosted by EarthScope Consortium, a non-profit organization that supports global geophysical research and education. Geo-Launchpad is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Applying for the Internship

I applied for this internship through the Front Range website by typing “Geo-Launchpad” in the search bar. The page will direct you to the Geo-Launchpad page on the EarthScope Consortium website where you’ll be able to fill out an internship interest form or submit an application..

The deadline to apply is in mid-February each year. You’ll hear back from the program in the coming months to see if you have been accepted.

As soon as I heard back from EarthScope, I was extremely excited! I didn’t fully know what to expect, so that was part of the reason this internship was so fun.

Nick and his roommates on a trail in the woods
Me (top), Kaden (middle) and Rori (bottom)

A Summer in Boulder

The location of the program varies every year, and this summer we were housed in Boulder, CO. More internship information was given to me the closer it came to our time to venture off.

When it came to housing, I roomed with three awesome roommates (Rori, Kaden and Mario—also interns) who had different research projects to conduct. We all became friends as we worked our way through the internship.

As far as financing was concerned, the NSF fully funded my research for the summer. They offered a weekly stipend for support. Since the housing was free, the stipend was used for groceries and transportation to explore Boulder with the other interns. The NSF also dispersed a travel grant so I could present my results at a national conference in Pittsburgh later in the year.

My Research Project

My research involved working with mentors at the University of Colorado Boulder to study natural acid rock drainage (ARD). Natural ARD is the chemical reaction between atmospheric water (rain, for example) and sulfur-bearing minerals on the surface of the Earth.

This reaction creates sulfuric acid which is harmful to the environment. It’s imperative to understand that this acid can negatively affect soil, vegetation, water, and the animals that eat the vegetation.

To keep a clean environment for future generations, minimizing the impacts of natural ARD is essential.

A Little Help From My Mentors

I was aided by two main mentors, Harry and Tristan, who helped guide me in the right direction with my research. They’re both PhD students at CU Boulder.

They allowed me to ponder the direction I wanted my research to go by giving their best advice, such as finding a scientific question that I’d like answered. I found their guidance extremely helpful as this was my first time conducting any type of scientific research.

Coming Up With a Plan

We first applied the scientific method to our research plan to make things easier. This involved:

  • asking a question
  • developing a hypothesis
  • gathering data from the question
  • analyzing the data
  • drawing a conclusion

It is essential to have a plan in place because that gives you a platform to steer your research in the right direction. The scientific method helped my research as I was able to categorize the process. Without it, there may’ve been other questions or data points that I might have missed.

Heading Into the Field

A creek in the forest

Our field site was Handcart Gulch, CO. This area is in the mountains about an hour southwest of Denver. The elevation in the study area ranged from sub-alpine to alpine.

We took multiple trips to the area—one of them lasting overnight. It took a couple of hours to hike to the highest research area.

Once there, we made sure to collect data and take it back to the lab for further analysis. We collected soil and water from the South Platte River with falcon tubes at different intervals throughout Handcart Gulch. (These plastic test tubes are useful as they safely confine your sample while it is being stored for scientific purposes.)

Testing Our Samples

The falcon tubes were taken back to a lab on the CU campus in Boulder where three measurements were evaluated:

  • pH
  • electrical conductivity (EC)
  • oxidation-reduction potential (ORP)

The purpose was to compare the soil quality to the water quality and tree health—to see how ARD has navigated throughout the landscape.

The pH readings from the soil and water samples indicated low levels, meaning the environment was acidic. An environment that is too acidic can result in a decrease in forest health.

We also looked at the electrical conductivity of the soil, which relates to how salty the water is. The highest EC readings in the soil were closest to the river. This means that the river was delivering high concentrations of sulfate and heavy metals to the surrounding soil.

The oxidation-reduction potential readings were low, as there was less of a presence of oxygen in the water. More oxygen means that the water can cleanse itself. 

Presenting My Research to Real-Life Scientists

Nick headshot smiling

As part of my internship, I got to present my research in Pittsburgh this fall. A requirement of the Geo-Launchpad internship is to apply for the Geological Society of America’s (GSA) On To the Future program. This program helps fund students to attend the annual GSA Connects conference.

GSA Connects is an annual conference that allows scientists to share their research with other scientists to solve Earth’s challenges. The event is held every year in ever-changing locations throughout the world. My application was accepted and I received a scholarship that covered my registration fees and partial travel to the conference

Traveling to Pittsburgh was an incredibly fun experience. It was extremely helpful that the NSF was able to provide grant money so I could travel.

As this was my first time, I decided to become a GSA member. The benefit to becoming a member of GSA is to involve yourself with people who have the same interests as you because the organization is geoscience specific.

When most people think of the word “geoscience” they think of rocks and volcanoes. Actually, geoscience involves all types of sciences that relate to the Earth, including almost every other scientific area of study.

Preparing for the Poster Session

I was more excited than nervous to present my research. The level of nervousness all depends on how prepared you are, so I made sure to be prepared.

The poster I created throughout my research in the summer allowed me to share my forestry research with the scientific community. Creating a poster is quite simple once you have a plan in place.

The incorporated titles on this kind of poster include:

  • an introductory statement regarding your research
  • your hypothesis
  • methods
  • observations
  • results (such as data collected)
  • conclusion

My poster layout was designed to mirror the scientific method layout from the research.

The Big Day

Nick standing next to his poster at the conference

Presenting the poster was exceptionally fun, disregarding the nervousness! I stood at my poster for a couple of hours, answering questions from anyone who was intrigued by my studies.

I was assigned poster #P143 (out of hundreds) in the big conference hall. There were hundreds of other researchers from various schools there to present what they had learned.

People from all over the world came to check out the posters—from community college to PhD students, as well as college professors and representatives from geological companies looking to hire. I made sure to answer any questions to the best of my ability so I could educate those interested.

Why a Geo-Launchpad Internship is Awesome!

For me, there is a substantial difference when it comes to learning in the classroom versus in the field. When I’m allowed to conduct research with the aid of my mentors, I feel more powerful as a scientist.

The process of producing a scientific research question, finding the best way(s) to answer this question, and then sharing my results allowed me to absorb and remember the information to a different degree than I would have just reading about it.

Students get the chance to see a variety of real-world choices through internships. It shows the real-world lifestyle of a scientist in a study. Students can weigh the pros and cons of their professional lifestyle.

Opportunities at Front Range

If it wasn’t for Front Range Community College, I would’ve missed an opportunity to learn more about my academic field. There is a plethora of internship and job opportunities offered for students here.

FRCC helped me engage in my first internship, which gave me a chance to research a topic I thoroughly enjoyed. The ability to find this opportunity through Front Range propelled me to thrive in school and finish my semester strong.

I’m now continuing my education at the college for the spring 2024 semester. I plan to transfer to Colorado State University in the fall of 2024 where I’ll be majoring in forest and rangeland stewardship, with a concentration in forest management.

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