Skip to main content

A 16-Year-Long Thesis

After 16 years of working and waiting, Keryn Ross successfully graduated with her masters' degree in geology in 2015.

Ross' interest in geology began at a young age with a fascination of volcanoes. She recalls finding books about volcanoes on trip to the library as a child with her mother and five siblings.

"I knew exactly where the volcano books were, and I'd go get them every time." Ross said. "[I would] read everything I could about volcanoes."

Ross continued to pursue that interest as she began studying geology at BYU in 1995. As an undergraduate, she studied the makeup of volcanic rocks in Mexico with Dr. Kowallis and Dr. Christiansen. She helped present that research in a regional meeting at UC Berkeley.

Ross earned her bachelor's degree in geology in 1999 and began her master's degree that same year. The focus of her graduate thesis and research was the Cottonwood Wash Tuff, an inactive super volcano that had erupted millions of years earlier. Her professors, Dr. Christiansen and Dr. Best, had been studying the Cottonwood Wash Tuff and similar volcanoes in the Indian Peak-Caliente volcanic fields in Utah's west desert.

"If you think about how big the Mt. Saint Helens eruption was, the [Cottonwood Wash Tuff] eruption was 2,000 times that," Ross explained.

However, Ross soon had to put her work on hold in order to focus on her new family.

"I did all the work, I did all the classes, and then I got married," Ross said. "[I] started working full time to support my husband and never finished writing the thesis."

After Ross got married, she started working as a geology teacher to support her family. Ross taught Geology 101 at Utah Valley University before she put her passion for geology on the backburner and made motherhood her full-time job. It's a decision she still stands by today.

"I love being a mother and I have never regretting choosing that path," Ross said.

After all five of her children started elementary school, Ross returned back to school in 2014. Because credits expire after five years at BYU, Ross had to reapply and retake all of her classes. But despite her lack of recent experience and research, she excelled in her studies.

"It took a lot of studying and a lot of work but I was surprised by how much I actually did remember," Ross said.

Even though she had to retake all of her classes, Ross discovered she could use her same thesis from 13 years earlier, although it would require many updates. For example, a study about a Colorado super volcano had taken the geology community by storm in 2002, one year after Ross left BYU. Ross altered her approach to her thesis based on the Colorado super volcano's eruption.

"[The magma] actually cooled almost to a solid and then got heated up by some other event, then erupted," Ross said.

The process of magma cooling to a solid and then reheating is called rejuvenation. After the research on the Colorado super volcano was published, geologists accepted rejuvenation as the primary theory of super volcano eruptions.

The volcano Ross' thesis was based on, the Cottonwood Wash Tuff, was very different from the volcano in Colorado.

"Rather than cooling down to almost solid, we see just a little bit of cooling and then eruption," Ross said.

Ross' research challenges the theory that the super volcanos in the area required rejuvenation to erupt. In December, she presented her research at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting, which had 28,000 registrants.

"It was a little intimidating but so amazing to have the opportunity to actually talk to all these really notable people in the field and to share my research with them," Ross said.

Overall, the knowledge and experiences Ross gained through her studies were well worth the wait.

"I would tell myself to do it again if I could go back in time. It was everything I hoped it would be," Ross said.

Additionally, returning to school helped Ross gain a greater appreciation of education.

"I really think it has improved my children's perception of schooling," Ross said. "It's improved my understanding of sacrifice."

She encourages anyone who has put their education on hold to find a way to finish.

"Figure out when it works for your family," Ross said. "Don't beat yourself up about it; not everybody gets it done in the same amount of time and that's okay."