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Student posing at Majors Expo

Cassaundra Huggins pursued a geoscience major to study things in space.

Bell Tower | Arts and SciencesOctober 04, 2023

Studying Earth to Get to Space

Written By: Judith Hansen

Do you ever listen to podcasts? Did one ever change your life?

Many people, especially those with a long commute, would answer yes to the first, then no to the second. Sure, a podcast may help while away the time on a trip into town, but they aren’t expecting life-changing content.

But UAFS May graduate Cassaundra Huggins would answer with an excited yes and then an even more excited yes to those questions.

“I was listening to this podcast ‘Ologies,’ and there was a planetary scientist who studied the moon and got to it through geosciences, and something just clicked,” she said about her epiphany.

To be sure, Cassaundra always had a scientific inclination. After she graduated from Poteau High School in 2006, she got an associate of science degree in pre-med at Carl Albert State College. She planned to be an orthodontist, but a few rounds of professional observation convinced her that wasn’t her path.

Then, as Cassaundra puts it, life happened. She moved out of her parents’ house and went to work full-time. She decided to step away from school. She got married and had children.

“In 2012 or 2013, I did a semester of radiology,” she said. “But it finally dawned on me that the medical field is not for me. Instead, I worked at a bank for 5 years and worked at the local newspaper as a secretary, and I did some writing.”

Then came the podcast that upended her life. She hadn’t realized that geoscience provided a path to planetary science.

“I told my husband I felt like I was wasting the potential I have. I’m glad I had my family, but it felt like the right time to go back (to school).”

Cassaundra looked for geoscience programs and realized there was one in her backyard.

“UAFS was close enough that I didn’t have to uproot my family. My husband didn’t have to change jobs; my kids (11, 7, and 5 now) could stay in school. And there was in-state tuition!”

As an eastern Oklahoma resident, Cassaundra was eligible for in-state tuition at UAFS. She also had some scholarship help and was eligible for work-study.

Cassaundra had a two-year degree, and all her general education credits transferred. But because she wanted to do planetary geology, she had to take classes outside the general geoscience core.

“Geoscience, in general, is a multidisciplinary field. You need chemistry and mathematical equations. GIS (geographic information systems) is such a big industry now you need that too,” she said.

She conferred with Dr. Maurice Testa, assistant professor of Geoscience at UAFS.

“When Cassaundra first joined the geoscience program, I asked her what she wanted to do within geosciences,” Testa said. “She replied that she was always interested in planetary geology, but she did not know if that was something she could do, let alone do at UAFS. I told her we absolutely could, but planetary geology is probably the most difficult field in geosciences.”

Testa told Cassaundra she would have to go to graduate school, and to get there, she’d have to compete against the best students from elite universities.

“Cassaundra had no problem with the challenges, and from there we started planning out her schedule to include the advanced geoscience, math, physics, and chemistry courses she would need for the planetary field,” Testa said.

Hands-on Learning

The department started a new research project in planetary geoscience. Cassaundra and Ross Metcalf, another geoscience student, analyzed samples from Magnet Cove, Arkansas. Then the students compared the samples’ mineralogy and elemental makeup to areas on Mars to try to find a similar environment, Testa said.

No matter how difficult the courses or research project became, Cassaundra stuck with it,” he said. “She deftly balanced increasingly difficult course loads and research work while continuing to be a mom of three young children.”

While acknowledging that she works hard, Cassaundra attributes some of her success to involved faculty members.

“The geology teachers are very invested in their students’ success,” she said. “They go out of their way to make sure that we are getting the undergraduate experiences we need to make us viable candidates for graduate school or to go straight into industry.”

She said that, in general, she has found faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences to be committed to their students. But she singled out professors in Geoscience who helped her develop her skills: Testa; Dr. David Mayo, associate professor of physical science; Dr. Archana Mishra, assistant professor of Physical Sciences; and Dr. Jim Belcher, department head and associate professor of Physical Sciences.

“They were always transparent about the difficulties I would face, but also let me know they were there for me. If there were any issues, they would help out.”

Recently, Cassaundra took their faith in her talent and translated it into a new game plan. She is a teaching assistant at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her position as a TA includes a tuition scholarship and a stipend. She will study planetary volcanology, researching the volcanoes on Earth and other planetary bodies. When she has completed her master’s degree, she plans to pursue a doctorate with the goal of being a research scientist at NASA.

New Horizons

Cassaundra said she and her family were eager to move from Stigler, Oklahoma, to the suburban campus of the University at Buffalo. They look forward to the opportunities that a bigger city can offer them.

“I haven’t done much traveling, and neither has my husband,” she said. “We’re pretty excited to experience different locations.”

In addition to finding caring faculty, scholarships, and work-study opportunities, Cassaundra said she participated in other events that rounded out her undergraduate experience.

“I had a chance to teach some labs and join clubs. I attended professional conferences and did research.”

Cassaundra said that if she could talk to her younger self, she would reassure her, “It was all worth it.”

“I had a lot of fears going back to school, especially with children. I didn’t want to make a mistake that would jeopardize their future. But it’s been a very positive experience. It’s been tough, but I’ve pushed myself and done things that I didn’t know I was capable of. I’ve grown not only as a student but as an individual and as a mom.

“As worried as I was about (my children), I think it’s been a positive experience for them to see me working hard and achieving my goals. One of the reasons I wanted to go back to school was to show them that.”

Testa said stories like Cassaundra’s are made possible by the student’s effort and by “the support and freedom we get from UAFS to explore student interests.”

Low faculty-student ratios mean students have more hands-on learning and more opportunity for imagination. This creates more motivated students who are actively involved with their major.

“Geoscience programs do not fit the norms of most departments because we are equally working in the field and in the classroom,” Testa said. “We are a diverse, research-heavy discipline, where Earth and other planets are our playground. This allows UAFS students to use their imagination and investigate problems for which answers cannot be found in the back of a textbook. I think Cassaundra has proven the sky is no longer the limit for UAFS students – we’ve moved on to other planets now.”





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