Experiencing It All

Barbara Wortham gets her hands dirty with undergraduate research

Most students will never go spelunking with a professor, but for Barbara Wortham, Texas ’13, doing so was all in a day’s work.

Wortham, a first-generation college student from Austin, spent years as part of a team of undergraduate and graduate researchers whose focus is totally underground, where analysis of the composition of cave formations is yielding vital information about historical climate conditions, hydrology and more.

She became involved with the research in 2011 after approaching Jackson School of Geosciences professor Dr. Jay Banner to ask whether she could simply “hang out” with the research team—a request that was granted, and that eventually led to an offer of a part-time job and a spot on the team.

Banner, who offers undergraduate students research opportunities through the Environmental Science Institute’s Research Experience for Undergraduates—one of more than 150 research units at The University of Texas at Austin—says there’s no substitute for hands-on experience.

“Formulating hypotheses, collecting data to test those hypotheses and interpreting data that you have collected yourself are all very self-motivating and vivid learning experiences,” he explains.

Wortham agrees.

“My relationship with Jay has taught me that field work and being outside and looking at the actual thing that you’re studying is probably the best educational tool that you can have, so if I go into teaching, that will be something that I try and incorporate,” she says.

She points to other benefits as well.

“Through my research experience, not only have I gotten to know Jay and the other professors who work really closely with him, but I know a lot of the professors in the geology department, and when I take their classes they know who I am and I have this personal and professional relationship with them that could only be helpful—in my future, in classes, et cetera,” she says.

Still, nothing compares to the experience itself.

“Somebody hands me keys and tells me to go into a cave and figure it out, and that’s incredible,” Wortham says.

Originally published Feb. 1, 2013