Science & Technology

Peak Performance: USU Geosciences Undergrad Explores Research Frontiers

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

Undergrad researcher Madison Taylor uses the scanning electron microscope in USU's Microscopy Core Facility to examine a sample from southwestern Utah’s Hurricane Fault. The geology major is among the inaugural cohort of Peak Summer Research Fellows.

Utah State University undergraduate Madison Taylor is learning that most day-to-day research efforts don’t yield heart-stopping breakthroughs. Sometimes, the geology major hits a wall as impenetrable as the rocks she studies.

“But you learn not to throw in the towel,” says Taylor, a Utah Valley native, who entered USU on a Dean’s Scholarship. “Sometimes, you just need to hit the ‘pause’ button and get some fresh perspectives.”

Taylor is among 11 undergraduates comprising the first cohort of Peak Summer Research Fellows and exploring, along with a parallel undergrad group of six Caine Summer Arts Fellows, the ins and outs of not only research, but learning how to fund, organize, communicate and present research efforts.

“It’s been interesting to hear about the other students’ projects and to learn we face many of the same challenges,” says the 2015 graduate of Saratoga Springs, Utah’s Westlake High School. “We’re also learning practical skills, such as how to write grant proposals and apply for fellowships – things that can advance us in our research and academic careers.”

A recipient of USU’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant, as well as a College of Science Minigrant, Taylor already has a solid foundation to launch her research efforts.

Working with Geosciences faculty member Alexis Ault, Taylor is investigating hematite, a reddish-black iron ore found in southwestern Utah’s Hurricane fault zone. The Hurricane Fault is seismically active, she says, and hosted an M5.8 earthquake in 1992.

“Heat from past geologic events has left marks on the sample, which give us clues about Utah’s earthquake history,” Taylor says.

She uses a scanning electron microscope in USU’s Microscopy Core Facility, as well as a transmission electron microscope at the University of Utah, to examine her samples at the micro and nano scales. These microscopy tools allow Taylor to identify potential earthquake texture in the samples. She then uses a technique called Uranium-Thorium-Helium or “(U-Th)/He” dating to determine the time when the hematite formed on the fault or was deformed by an earthquake.

“I’m learning a lot about these tools, as well as how to interpret data,” Taylor says. “I’m also learning the more research I do, the more I like it.”

Geology wasn’t her first choice of major.

“It wasn’t even on my radar,” Taylor says. “I never thought much or knew much about geology, but I love the outdoors. After taking an introductory geology course, I wanted to take more. I realized it was the discipline I wanted to study.”

Initiated in 2019, Peak Summer Research Fellowships are endowed by USU professors David Peak (Physics) and Terry Peak (Social Work), who are long-time champions of undergraduate research at Utah State. The program’s 10-week summer research experience actively engages the fellows with faculty mentors and provides special training opportunities. Fellows receive guidance intended to promote their success in the pursuit of educational and career goals.

Peak Fellow Madison Taylor, left, discusses research with Geosciences faculty mentor Alexis Ault in USU's Microscopy Core Facility. Taylor is the recipient of URCO and College of Science Undergraduate Research Minigrant funding.


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Alexis Ault
Assistant Professor
Department of Geosciences



Research 538stories Undergraduate Research 108stories Geology 53stories

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