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Curiosity and Wonder

May 3, 2019
man and woman working with mechanical gadgets
As part of an American Institute of Chemical Engineers club project, Kennedee True works with fellow student Thomas Christensen to create a Chem-E-Car.

By Micaela Myers

The world needs more wonder, and University of Wyoming students answer the call—always curious to understand how things work and to find ways to make the world better.

“I want to keep asking questions and pushing myself,” says physics and astronomy doctoral student Jessica Sutter of Portland, Ore. “I think wonder has a big component in that. I’m excited about finding new things in other galaxies and in the classroom. What’s the best way to teach people about dark matter? What does that look like? It’s kind of like a fun game.”

Computer science senior Adrian Barberis of Laramie finds wonder in modern technology—“curiosity, too, because I love to check out all the newest tech and see how it works,” he says. 

Elementary education senior Evan Tucker of San Diego, Calif., sees curiosity as a key to bettering oneself through education: “If you’re a curious intelligent individual, then you should use that ability as much as you can, because it benefits you and it benefits our country to have an educated populous capable of complex tasks.” 

Chemical engineering junior Kennedee True of Casper, Wyo., lives every day with a sense of wonder. “Wonder definitely applies to me,” she says. “I’ve been riding my bike and crashed it because I was so excited by what I saw!”

We sat down with six UW students and one recent graduate who exemplify curiosity and wonder to ask them about their experiences and plans for the future. In addition to Sutter, Barberis, Tucker and True, we spoke to senior McKenzee Peterson of Star Valley Ranch, Wyo., majoring in geology/geophysics and psychology; junior Zayne Hebbler of Cody, Wyo., majoring in environment and natural resources, and environmental systems science, with minors in sustainability and outdoor leadership; and Megan Wild, who earned her bachelor’s via UW at a Distance and then her master’s in social work in 2017 and is now program coordinator for the eight branches of Greater Wyoming Big Brothers Big Sisters.

woman outdoors in winter
Jessica Sutter knew she wanted to attend graduate school near mountain ranges, where she enjoys a variety of outdoor pursuits, including cross-country skiing.

Why did you choose UW?

Sutter: “Wyoming is a great place to do astronomy because there are big clear skies. It’s really cool we have our own telescope that students get to use at all stages. That’s not something that is an option at most schools.”

Peterson: “The opportunities here are boundless. UW has excellent programs in geology and geophysics. Everyone is so willing to help you—people really want to see you strive and succeed.”

Wild: “UW at a Distance worked well because my husband was active-duty military, and our state of record was Wyoming. The teachers were great. The distance education that UW has is fantastic.”

Barberis: “A big one was the Hathaway Scholarship. It’s just too good of a deal to miss, especially for undergrad.”

Tucker: “I lived overseas for a while, and when I came back, I got my associate degree at Sheridan College. UW was a very affordable option for me.”

woman sitting
A recent graduate, Megan Wild serves as program coordinator for the eight branches of Greater Wyoming Big Brothers Big Sisters.

What have you gained from your research opportunities?

Wild: “When I was in the social work program, I did my thesis project on UW’s preparedness to address student veteran needs. Because my husband had been in the military, I had firsthand exposure to some of the things veterans were experiencing on campus and could see some of the areas where services were lacking. It was one of the largest studies of student veterans on campus. I also included faculty and staff on that study. It was very well received, and the Veterans Services Center has implemented some of my findings for orientation and things like that. Associate Professor Neely Mahapatra and I turned my thesis research into an academic paper that was recently published in the Journal of Veterans Studies. I also presented a poster of the research at the 2018 Society for Social Work and Research conference in Washington, D.C.”

Peterson: “The McNair Scholars Program is fantastic. I did research on the mobility of rare earth elements in Sherman granite. It was a fantastic experience to get you prepared for graduate school. I work in a hydrothermal geochemistry lab right now. We focus on oil and gas experiments. I enjoy the geochemistry of that and the water-rock interactions. This fall I took an ore deposits class, and everything clicked for me. You get to focus on structural components and different kinds of hydrothermal fluid that can affect how an ore deposit is formed. Going forward, I want to do geochemistry focused on economic deposits.”

Barberis: “I work for psychology Assistant Professor Meredith Minear in the Spatial Cognition Lab. She has been doing a lot of studies using virtual reality headsets and an omni-directional treadmill. I had to delve into some of the source code on the treadmill to rewrite it. You can now enter this treadmill and put the headset on, and I make all the environments. I’ve gained a better sense of creating code for future use. We’ll be presenting a poster at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) conference on virtual reality in Osaka, Japan, this spring.

“Along with fellow students, I also published a paper with Cybersecurity Education and Research Center Director Mike Borowczak in my computer security class. My group and I decided to create a private browsing solution using a Raspberry Pi that the everyday person could benefit from.

We were able to present that at IEEE last summer in Las Vegas.”

Sutter: “I’m working on a project that looks at star formation in nearby galaxies. We’re trying to see if we can find a new measure for how quickly they’re forming stars. It’s a far infrared emission line from singly ionized carbon. We’re doing some modifications to make it a better star formation indicator that we can then use to see how galaxies are forming stars throughout cosmic time because it’s detectible both in nearby galaxies and in distant galaxies. I’m currently funded on a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship. Understanding how our universe gets to where it is—I’d like to put one more piece of that puzzle in.”

man climbing up a sheer rock face
In addition to working for UW’s Outdoor Program, Zayne Hebbler enjoys outdoor recreation in his free time. He’s pictured here climbing in Red Rock Canyon, Nev. Photo by Bailey Lasko

What was your study abroad experience like?

True: “With my brother (see page 26) and a group of our friends, we did UW’s London semester last spring. It was an absolute ball. We had grown up on stories our dad would tell us about his time in London as a UW student, so when we got to go and see the same places, it was a lot of fun. We also went to Spain, Scotland, Ireland, France and Denmark. It allows you to reflect on yourself and your culture. My capacity for empathy and for caring about the rest of the world greatly increased. Now, I’m excited to follow current events in other countries and see what’s going on.”

Hebbler: “I’ve participated in two field courses so far. The first one was a monthlong residency in Grand Teton National Park. The other course was in Chamonix, France. It’s basically the recreational hub of Europe—what some people consider a Jackson. It’s really interesting to see how mountains and recreation are really deeply rooted in their culture. Taking what you learn and being able to apply it prior to graduating is invaluable.”

Tucker: “I’m part of the first group of UW students to participate in the Consortium of Overseas Student Teaching. It’s a very exciting program. It’s a really good opportunity to send some students overseas to see how other countries live and especially how their education systems work. I’ll be going to Spain from March to April. I hope to get some good experience working with students who are learning English as a foreign language.”

person in a room with blue light
Adrian Barberis codes the virtual reality programs in psychology Assistant Professor Meredith Minear’s Spatial Cognition Lab.

What are your favorite ways to get involved at UW?

Barberis: “I’m the president of Upsilon Pi Epsilon, which is the computer science honor society on campus. I’m also president of the Japanese Language Club. We help students with the language component, and we get a lot of Japanese exchange students who come, and students can meet and talk. This summer, I’ll be chaperoning one of the honors classes to Japan.”

Sutter: “I came here and learned about Women in Math, Science and Engineering, and I also got involved in the RSO that is paired with that—Women in STEM. I started leading it my second year. I wanted to make a safe place for women in STEM to get together and celebrate themselves and their achievements. As part of that, last year I helped with the organization of the Own It! awards.

“Two summers ago, I did the Science Initiative Summer Institute, which is part of the Learning Actively Mentoring Program (LAMP). I was surrounded by people who want to do the best teaching they can. I’m getting ready to submit a paper on the class I taught after that experience, and I’ve gained a really great community of people who care about teaching.”

True: “I was really involved in The Navigators. That was an excellent opportunity to meet people and try new things. I was president of Students for Life for a while, and now I’m the vice president. That has been very educational about how to present myself, how to try to grow a group and keep members’ attention and focus on a common goal. I’m also involved in a chemical engineering design group where we design a car and take it to a competition. It’s been a fun way to get out of the classroom and practice what we’re learning.”

Peterson: “I was a part of SPURS sophomore honorary society. We did several different events, including The Big Event for community service. It’s rewarding to go help the community. I was also a part of Cardinal Key National Honor Society my junior year. You get to meet a lot of people from different majors and get to make a lot of different friends that way. I’m also treasurer of the Geology Club. We go on field trips, host a chili cook-off and focus on helping students. The geology department is one big family, which is awesome.”

Wild: “I had three internships during my program—one was at the State Hospital in Evanston on the criminal justice unit, another was at the Department of Family Services in Laramie, and another at the Wyoming Children’s Law Center in Laramie. They were really great. It was wonderful to have that firsthand experience and exposure to the field before you actually start working in it as a career.”

Hebbler: “I’m a trip leader with the Outdoor Program, so I lead climbing trips, backcountry ski trips, climbing clinics, kayaking clinics—the whole gamut of things. In addition to that, I work at the climbing wall, so I set routes and work in the attendant position there. I think the Outdoor Program is incredibly beneficial. There are a lot of opportunities to gain experience while being in college. I also participated in UW’s Outdoor Leadership Development Series.

“I am a co-chair of the Sustainability Coalition on campus, and I was the Zero Waste intern for the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources starting fall of last year. We’ve seen an increased interest in this throughout campus.”

woman recording information outside
McKenzee Peterson conducts field work for her geology structural class in the Snowy Range Mountains.

What do you think sets UW apart from other Universities?

Peterson: “UW is student focused. That is one thing I loved when I visited UW. The amount of opportunities for students is incredible—McNair, student services, tutoring, hundreds of clubs.”

Hebbler: “We have some of the largest wide-open spaces for research anywhere in the country, and that’s out our back door. So our geographic location in and of itself as well as our size and the kind of people that a small town in Wyoming attracts—especially when it comes to professors—I think makes it unique.”

True: “One, I’d say, is our size. You can easily meet people in our classrooms because there are not hundreds of people. There’s good accessibility to professors, teaching assistants and study groups, and we’re very close to beautiful mountains.”

Wild: “UW really understands the state we live in and what the needs are. Both programs that I was in were considered distance programs. Even though I was in Laramie for the master’s program, they had students from all across the state. It felt like you were having that teamwork and collective classroom experience, even though we had people who were miles apart.”

Barberis: “There’s a lot of freedom to do a lot of stuff beyond the traditional collegiate academic experience—learning a cool new topic, going to conferences. I love the small class sizes. You can get more one-on-one time, and you can understand the subject better.”

Sutter: “There are opportunities to explore whatever you want to. You get an awesome experience in an amazing place.”

man on a hillside overlooking a rustic town
Evan Tucker spent March and April in Spain as part of the first group of UW students to participate in the Consortium of Overseas Student Teaching. He’s pictured on Monte de Castelo in the village of Allariz, outside of Ourense. (Courtesy photo)

What are your plans for the future?

Sutter: “I’d like to find a small undergraduate-serving institution where I can teach astronomy and physics. I had two incredible advisers when I was an undergrad. They were both female, and they supported me and encouraged me and made sure I knew I could make it as a scientist. If I could pay that forward and give it back to the next generation of women, that’s my ultimate dream to be able to do that.”

True: “I’m very interested in medicine, and I’m interested in counseling. I’m excited about the many possibilities that come with engineering and possibly going down a medical track.”

Peterson: “For the future, I’d like to focus on processes that can help everyone in the world. I’d like to work on going into energy and focus on how we can make it better or going into mining and enhance mineral extraction.”

Wild: “I think UW gave me such broad opportunities that I was able to explore where I wanted to go with my career while I was still in school. With Big Brothers Big Sisters, I help support different programs in the communities. Programming can include professional support, one-on-one matches with positive adults, after-school programs, restorative justice programs and family engagement. We really listen to the needs of the community and try to build our programs around that. I’m hoping to stay here and transition into more of a leadership role.”

Tucker: “Once I get my degree, the plan is to find a teaching job overseas. My girlfriend and I are shopping around the world. We’re specifically looking at Korea, Japan or Hong Kong for me to be teaching English as a second language in. We’re excited about that.”

Hebbler: “Once I graduate, I’d like to guide for a little while and use my outdoor leadership education and then potentially look at pursuing jobs in science communication or nonprofit work.”

Barberis: “I’d like to get a job, get more into the private industry, set up my finances to be stable, and then go to graduate school for computer science. I’ll be looking at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon—the big tech schools. I want to work in private industry for a while and then, long term, maybe come back to the public and teach.”


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