Elaine Flynn Spotlight
- Sydney Windhorst
- Monday, April 25th, 2022
The Mahurin Honors College (MHC) seeks to develop scholars into masters of their passions- whatever those may be. For scholars like Elaine Flynn (MHC ‘13), her passion could only be found in a geology research lab.
During her time on WKU’s campus, Elaine was Co-President for Golden Key Honors Society and served on the Baptist Campus Ministries leadership team. Her goal was to, as she put it, “be both involved on campus and in the community. Only this way can you truly make WKU your home.” In addition, the summer before her senior year, Elaine completed a National Science Foundation research experience and chose to continue that project through a CE/T.
“I was working on collecting samples from blue holes in the Bahamas, specifically San Salvador Island. I had gone down to collect these as part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). For a time we looked around for climate change history and had done a lot of research during the summer of characterizing the soil that we had dug up. My job was to continue on with that research, looking at the carbon and oxygen isotopes, and trying to understand a little more about the climate changing over the years.“
Elaine also expanded her education to a global scale through study abroad when she took part in the Semester at Sea (SAS) program. During her time in college, SAS was offered for the duration of one month. Elaine visited seven countries immersing herself in geology studies around the world.
“I would encourage anyone and everyone to study abroad. If you wait till after you graduate, you're taking time off from work to go travel. So it's not near the same. Even a short, one month trip can make all the difference and give you a global outlook.”
After graduating, Elaine was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Washington University in St. Louis, where she spent the next five years studying geology, specifically looking at how rocks and minerals interact with water and different trace metals to understand the processes happening in soils and the environment. She received her Ph.D. in 2018 and accepted a full-time position at the university. “We had five instruments that came into the lab while I was working with them, so I got to learn everything from how to install an instrument all the way to how to train others.” Now, she continues to work at these labs mentoring other grad students, postdocs, undergraduates, mentoring, in research, as well as doing some research projects herself.
So how has Elaine used her geology research to impact the world and serve others?
“To me, geology is an opportunity to look at our world and see what we can do to improve it, especially looking at communities that might not have as much as we do here. It’s about how we can use the natural resources to help in cases such as water quality issues in developing nations. It is also about looking at what we are doing to our world? And answering questions like how is that going to affect us in the future? I think geology to me is just an opportunity to help the world but in a different way.”
Elaine’s passion for geology actually started prior to her time in the MHC.
“During my time at The Gatton Academy, I did some geology research. (When I stayed at WKU) I actually continued with the same faculty mentor during my undergrad research projects. When I started my Ph.D. program, I wanted to study water quality contamination issues, but I wasn't sure where exactly that was going to go. Staying on as a lab manager helped me realize I didn't want to teach. Although I do not have that passion for standing in front of a classroom full of students and explaining things, I love one-on-one mentoring. Being in a lab setting where I can help the student doing the research project, but not come up with the ideas or funding opportunities is the perfect fit for me”
As Elaine was finishing her time at The Gatton Academy and began searching for a university, she thought she wanted a school outside of KY. However, Western Kentucky’s incomparable scholarship package convinced her to stay on the hill.
“Honestly, I think looking back was the best decision ever. I really enjoyed my time there. In fact I applied to Washington University but being here now, I can’t imagine having spent my undergrad here. WKU was just where I needed to be. Working at another school has given me a great appreciation for The Mahurin Honors College at WKU. I think having that small college feeling within that bigger school system enabled me to tailor my classes how I wanted, get my double major, embrace research experience, and invest in the clubs and organizations that I wanted.”
So what advice does a geologist offer to current MHC scholars?
“My greatest piece of advice would be to invest in research experiences and to constantly be in contact with your professors. Just use those office hours and build the relationships so that when you're looking forward to what to do next, you have someone you can rely on and have as mentors to help with that. Those research experiences narrow down exactly what you want because it's difficult being a broad field to know exactly what you want to do.”
Elaine, you rock (get it?). But we at the MHC are genuinely so proud of all the amazing work you continue to do!