Movements of the body, movements of the Earth

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jen Taylor hadn't taken any dance classes before coming to college. After graduation this spring, she will leave with several years' experience not only dancing but teaching dance from cultures around the world. Similarly, she had never studied fault zones or Earth science in depth, but four years at Penn State gave her the opportunity not only to study geosciences but also complete multiple research projects.

Transformative dance

In high school, Taylor gravitated toward theater. She entered college knowing she wanted to get involved in some type of dance.

"I found the International Dance Ensemble, and it was really something different," she said. "I got to meet so many different kinds of people from many different backgrounds, and learn so much."

Taylor began learning the array of choreographies that the troupe performs, which include Indian, Chinese, Tahitian, African, Latin, modern, tap and more. The group, which formed in 1977, has benefited from the fact that students from around the world have joined over the years, adding their own culture's traditional dances to the ensemble's repertoire.

"We have choreographies passed down from generation to generation, basically from the entire globe," said Taylor, who served as the ensemble's co-director in 2016 and 2017. "A lot of the time we have students come in who have cultural experience from their own backgrounds, so we had someone from Saudi Arabia who brought us a new dance called Dabke. We try to mix traditional with newer dances."

After several years of being part of the group, Taylor had learned enough that she began to teach new members some of the dances they would be performing. She then applied that to teach dance courses at the Penn State Center for Art and Crafts.

"It really has been a transformative experience," she said. "To see the many forms dance takes in different cultures stretches how you think about things and how many different ways you can look at something."

Tectonics and research

Taylor started off college as an astrophysics major but realized a semester in that her heart wasn't into the subject. Growing up with a mother who was an English teacher, and always enjoying the subject in high school, Taylor decided to major in English instead.

"My adviser told me to try and stick with the science, too, and encouraged me to take some introductory classes," she said.

On a whim she took GEOSC 001 Physical Geology. About a month into the course, she was hooked. "It just clicked for me; I knew that this is what I wanted to do," she said.

But rather than abandon English, she added geosciences as a second major. Both curricula gave her a well-rounded experience in humanities and science, she said.

"I've always enjoyed creative writing and literature, and so English became a great outlet for that side of my brain," she said. "You take many math and science courses as a geosciences major, but I think it's good to have diversity in what you're doing."

Geosciences was a good fit for her, she said, because it's multidisciplinary.

"You need the math, the biology, the chemistry, the physics, and the programming skills, as well as the visual arts skills for creating figures. You can bring these together in your research and that makes it versatile and flexible," she said. "I also like the big picture questions — we live on this planet, so we should know how it works."

Taylor dedicated herself to understanding science for the next four years. Her hard work was recognized numerous times; she received many merit-based scholarships that were established to recognize and honor the hard work of high-achieving geosciences students, including a scholarship from the Arthur P. Honess Memorial Fund, the Matthew J. Wilson Honor Scholarship, and the John and Elizabeth Holmes Teas Scholarship. She was also named Science Honor Marshal for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences for the spring 2017 commencement ceremonies.

"I've been really fortunate that the department is willing to support their students and recognize people that put in the effort," she said. "I have always been appreciative of the generosity and support the department has for its students."

As a geosciences major, Taylor had numerous opportunities to conduct research. After her junior year, she attend Summer Field Camp, a six-week excursion to the western U.S. to see geological areas with millions of years of the Earth's history exposed at the surface. The group traveled to numerous locales with geological significance to apply skills they learned in class, such as Utah’s Book Cliffs to measure the stratigraphy, or layers of exposed earth, and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Jennifer Taylor in Grand Teton Mountains

Jennifer Taylor sits on a gneiss boulder in Grand Teton National Park.

Image: Jennifer Taylor

It was an extraordinary experience, she said.

"It's one thing to see a picture of a fault line in a book, but the first time you're out in the field and you recognize one for yourself, it's mind-blowing. I looked at it thinking, 'I understand how this got here and where it came from.'"

A Schreyer Scholar, Taylor had the chance to conduct her own research project as part of her thesis with the guidance of her faculty adviser, Donald Fisher, professor of geosciences. She investigated rocks that Fisher had brought back from a fault zone in Japan and had curious deformation structures.

"Nobody quite understood those deformations, so we investigated them with a combination of scanning electron microscopy and electron microprobe analysis to figure out what kinds of chemical processes took place and better understand why these rocks deformed the way they did," she said.

The experience of investigating fault zones resonated with her so much that she decided to pursue her doctorate in structural geology and tectonics at the University of Minnesota this fall. 

Last Updated May 03, 2017