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Drexel Student Finds Perfect Fit for Volcano Research Through Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Nick Barber

May 23, 2018

Nick Barber’s fate was sealed by a series of emails he received late last year.

The senior geoscience student from the College of Arts and Sciences remembers the past fall term by the deadline dates for the number of scholarships, programs and grants he was applying for in pursuance of his postgraduate education. On Oct. 14, he submitted his application to the Gates Cambridge Scholarship — a highly competitive, full-cost scholarship for outstanding applicants from outside the United Kingdom to pursue a postgraduate degree at the University of Cambridge.

In November, he received an email from the Department of Earth Science at Cambridge that requesting a Skype interview for his possible acceptance into the university’s PhD in Earth Science program. Then in December, he got word that he was accepted into the department, as well as into the Churchill College, a constituent college of the university (think Harry Potter houses). About a week later, he found out he was a finalist for the Gates Scholarship — which he ended up winning following an in-person interview in Seattle, Washington in January. Barber is now just the second student in Drexel University history to receive the prestigious award.

Barber said the feeling of winning the scholarship was hard to describe, but that every new email and milestone passed on his way to success was an awesome feeling on its own.

“I mean, probably one of the happiest moments of my time at Drexel was getting the e-mail that I got,” Barber said. “It felt like an affirmation of a lot of the work and sacrifice I made over the past couple of years.”

That work and sacrifice throughout his time at Drexel includes distinguished research, co-op experience, campus involvement and community outreach. Most notably, Barber has been working with his faculty mentor, Assistant Professor of Geoscience Loÿc Vanderkluysen, PhD, since 2015 to examine the structure, scale and environmental impact of the Deccan Traps in Wester India, and also joined Vanderkluysen in a Drexel gas monitoring study on geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. In layman’s terms, the two have been studying volcanoes — which Barber will continue to do at Cambridge, and credits Vanderkluysen for stoking his academic passion for the subject.

“He just seemed like he did really cool research even though I didn't think at the time I wanted to work on volcanoes,” Barber said. “Basically, he shaped my whole path because I didn't know I wanted to do volcanoes and didn't know I wanted to go abroad until I really talked with him and he connected me with this.”

Nick BarberVanderkluysen said he met Barber when he interviewed for his current position at Drexel, and then again when he started the job. He was immediately impressed with how coherent and understanding of academic research Barber was only a year or two into his undergraduate studies.

“There are a lot of students who have opportunities to apply for fellowships, but they get discouraged by the paperwork and end up not doing it,” Vanderkluysen said, adding that because of his character, Barber was instead willing to put in the work to make things happen.

“He was always putting in the effort,” Vanderkluysen said.

Once Barber expressed an interest in going to graduate school, Vanderkluysen knew he needed to take Barber along with him to the IAVCEI 2017 conference in Portland, Oregon. The trip even turned into Barber’s chance to meet his soon-to-be mentor at Cambridge, Marie Edmonds, PhD. Barber says he managed to corner her at a poster session, and from that 20-minute meeting knew he wanted to apply to work with her for the next four years.

“In the field of volcanology, it’s a small field but she really is a rock star,” Barber said. “She changes the paradigm. Her papers are always super big-picture, exciting stuff. So I was really excited to work with her.”

Barber is thankful for all of the support he’s received from a variety of offices at Drexel, from the Pennoni Honors College’s Office of Undergraduate Research which funded a previous trip for a conference in the U.K. to the Fellowships Office in the Center for Scholar Development, which helped arrange mock interviews before his trip to Seattle.

“You can only advance so far on your own without support from others and they all just have given so much time, money and effort to really allow me to thrive,” he said.

Following his studies at Cambridge, Barber plans to continue research whether in the academic, governmental or private sector. His dream is to go somewhere in the developing world and do work to better understand volcanic eruptions so that they can be more easily and quickly predicted. He particularly has his sights set on Indonesia due to its population density as well as its very active, very destructive volcanoes.

Vanderkluysen said Barber has found a great group to continue working with at Cambridge, especially for his particular area of interest.

“Whatever happens I’m quite confident that he’s going to do some great research,” Vanderkluysen said.

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