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 Rising Star: Patrick Burkhart 



Issue date: February 10, 2012 on Rock Pride

RISING STAR: Patrick Burkhart, professor of geography, geology and the environment, has been asked by NASA to lead a prestigious summer internship program.

NASA taps SRU's Patrick Burkhart

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - NASA, impressed by Patrick Burkhart, Slippery Rock University professor of geography, geology and the environment, has recruited him to co-lead the space agency's Lunar and Planetary Science Academy summer internship program. Burkhart will teach 20 of the nation's finest college science majors about the surface of the earth and supervise a student-faculty research expedition to the Grand Canyon.

It is the second consecutive year NASA has taped Burkhart for the internship program, which strives to inspire the next generation of scientists to pursue careers in space technology or planetary science teaching. Last summer, the SRU professor headed a research expedition to the Channeled Scablands in Washington.

"I feel very fortunate that my interest in planet Earth and my ability to inspire other people to revere planet Earth have been recognized as an asset by the team of NASA scientists who asked me to make a contribution," he said.

Burkhart will teach a one-day workshop in mid-June at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., followed by the research trip to the Grand Canyon at the end of June.

"One of the comparisons we're going to be working on this summer is the nature of volcanoes versus meteorite impact craters," he said. "Both a volcano and an impact of celestial body can leave an uplifted, mountainous terrain with a conical vent in the middle. So you can end up with landforms that look similar. We want to learn more about how to discriminate these features remotely, by examining them up close."

NASA's Lunar and Planetary Institute Academy summer internship is for undergraduate and graduate students. The primary objective is to inspire a greater interest in the technological challenges involved with space exploration, for possible future expeditions to Mars. NASA's Lunar and Planetary Institute was established during the Apollo missions to foster international collaboration and serve as a space program think tank.

"NASA has visiting scientists come in, and what I am bringing to the table is the perspective of the geologist, someone who studies the surface of the Earth," Burkhart said.

Burkhart, an expert in hydrogeology, said most of the students NASA selects for the internship major in chemistry, physics, mathematics or engineering and have little experience with geology. Studying terrestrial landscapes will empower students to make better inferences about processes at play when they see pictures of planetary bodies.

"These are all top notch young people with sharp minds, but predominately, they're scientists who have very little experience examining Earth," he said. "What they're doing is studying planets and moons - planetary bodies - and making inferences to understand the nature of their origins and materials - all these things."

Burkhart said he fully supports the importance of encouraging young people to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers but also pushes them toward becoming teachers.

"I want them, as anyone would suggest, not to put all their eggs in one basket," he said. "We realize that they're not all going to be planetary scientists, but I love their passion, I love their enthusiasm. I tell them they should think about teaching. They may never get to walk on Mars, but if they teach a generation of students about what Mars is like that may be the next best thing that they can do."

Burkhart said he is flattered and feels fortunate that NASA asked him to co-lead the geological component of the internship. "The students are young, enthusiastic and really passionate," he said. "I met one young lady last summer who wanted to walk on the moon. I met one guy last summer who wanted to walk on Mars. Currently in the U.S., we're not sending astronauts on to surfaces of celestial bodies. But that may change. These students are chasing dreams really hard."

Burkhart, who joined SRU in 1998, has taken students to Newfoundland, Alaska and the Badlands of South Dakota. Burkhart created the SRU Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Achievement and its publication The Journal of Scholarly Endeavor. He is an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys kayaking, rock climbing and skiing.

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