Prof-iles: UAA professor chases dreams and dates rocks

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With original aspirations to be an astronaut, Erin Shea found a new calling in geology with the help of a previous lab instructor at MIT. Through various projects, she has been able to study different rock samples from the moon. Photo credit: Young Kim

Walking into Erin Shea’s office, the object that catches your eye first is a model NASA space shuttle, followed by a signed picture of NASA Flight Manager, Gene Kranz. Shea has had many dreams, one of which was to become an astronaut. In many ways, the pursuit of that dream has shaped her future. She went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study physics because that was a school astronauts went to and physics was the subject they studied. During her time as a physics student, she discovered a lack of passion which, in turn, impacted her grades.

“I was a really bad physicist,” Shea said. “I think I struggled a lot with the math, so that was hard for me, and the concepts. I struggled with all of it — except the lab portion — and I had a really good lab instructor who said, ‘You’re okay at the lab part and everything else you seem to struggle with, you should maybe consider geology.’ And I did.”

Shea now has her Ph.D. in geology from MIT and has been an assistant professor of geology at UAA since 2015. The astronaut dream didn’t work out as planned, Shea said she never even applied, but as a geologist, she was able to get her hands on the moon, at least a piece of it.

“At MIT, when you’re a graduate student, you have to take — it’s like a test. You stand up and give a presentation, and there is a committee of faculty members who decide whether you can continue to be a graduate student,” Shea said. “They make you do two projects… I said, ‘Well, I want to study moon rocks and there is a guy at MIT who studies moon rocks and asteroids and meteorites.’ I talked to him and he said, ‘Yeah I have this project.’”

Through that project, she was able to explore the moon, but now she focuses more of her time on Earth. She has two kids, a three-year-old daughter and a son who is eight-months-old, and she has found success in various teaching positions. Shea said she’s had many dreams, being an astronaut, working with horses, but she said that it’s always good to try your dreams, even if you realize they won’t work out.

“I highly recommend pursuing your dream at some point and finding out what it’s really like,” Shea said.

As a professor, Shea said her new dream is to make a contribution to her field and her students. In many ways, she’s already meeting her goal. In 2012, she was awarded the MIT Award for Excellence in Teaching. At UAA, she’s showing her dedication to geology and her students, by taking a group of 14 students to Tonopah, Nevada in May with LeeAnn Munk to learn how to use tools and conduct measurements in a real world environment.

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In the present and the future, Shea will continue to pursue her new dream. She will also keep, “dating rocks,” as a geology professor, and even though she will never be an astronaut, she has found a way to incorporate space and geology in her life by naming her cat after a geologist whose work centered on lunar rocks.