Katie Delbecq '09 spends her days immersed in geology, researching, teaching and taking classes. Her passion for the science took off at Earlham, and since then it has taken her around the world.
Delbecq, a Brookfield, Ill. native, is a Ph.D. student at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. The vibrant department and Austin's sunny climate seem to agree with her. "I love Texas, which I never thought I would be saying, but it's awesome down here!" she said.
The daughter of zoologists, Delbecq came to Earlham interested in biology, but soon found herself fascinated by rocks. "I would definitely encourage everybody who comes to Earlham to take a geology class if they can," she said. "It can open your mind up about how people interact with nature and the earth systems," she added.
Delbecq chose Earlham for the close, personal educational experiences it offers. "Also the Quaker values attracted me," she said, "I'm from a Unitarian background, so a lot of the values that I found very important were echoed at Earlham."
Being a geology major offered Delbecq many opportunities for travel. During her first year, she spent a May Term trip in Hawaii, studying volcanoes, and went to Yellowstone National Park in her senior year to learn geological mapping techniques. One of her favorite college experiences was traveling to Hokkaido, Japan, to study tsunamis for a Ford-Knight research project. "From that work I was able to go to a national geology conference and present my work," she said.
At the conference she met Dr. Matthew Hornbach, her current advisor at the University of Texas. Hornbach arranged for Delbecq to visit the university, and got her involved in his ongoing research project in Jamaica. Hornbach and his students spend summers studying Port Royal, a Jamaican city that sank under water in 1692 after a massive earthquake.
The geologists measure the depth of the sea floor around Port Royal and analyze the earth beneath it in the hopes of predicting future geologic activity. The fault line was quiet for much of the last century, but January's earthquake in Haiti (which lies along the same fault) has served as a wake-up call. The researchers hope that with enough information and encouragement, the nearby metropolis of Kingston will start implementing earthquake-resistant construction techniques, protecting the people in case disaster strikes.
When she's not in class, Delbecq spends much of her time analyzing data gathered on the Jamaica trips, and preparing for the next expedition. "There's a lot of safety issues that have to be planned for," she said. Many hours are devoted to waterproofing equipment with electrical tape so it can be taken out on a small boat in Kingston harbor.
She also enjoys her role as a teaching assistant at the university. "A lot of those students don't have personal relationships with their professors like they do at Earlham, and the TA becomes the person who knows their name," she said.
Delbecq enjoyed an engaged student career at Earlham, serving on the Environmental Responsibility Committee and advocating for improvements in the college's recycling policies. "I really valued the fact that students, even first-year students, are able to be valuable decision-makers in campus policies," she said.
The experience inspired Delbecq to jump right in when opportunities at the University of Texas present themselves. Less than a year out of Earlham, Delbecq has already helped start a nonprofit. Bridging Waters is a database-in-progress for people working in the field of water resource development in developing countries. Engineers, academics, and anyone who has worked in the field will be encouraged to contribute to the database, which is designed to work with the slow computer connections often found in rural areas.
The project resonates with Delbecq, who wants her career to benefit others. "I can definitely see myself teaching at a small liberal arts college. I enjoy exposing students to an area of science they haven't really encountered before," she said. Government work and being part of a private consulting firm also appeal; that way she could help cities (like Kingston) that are vulnerable for geologically based disasters prepare in advance.
Even as she enjoys the resources of a behemoth like the University of Texas, Delbecq is grateful she got her start at a small liberal arts college like Earlham. "I think we graduate with a really strong background in a wide variety of subjects," she said.
- Laura Gleason '08
(Posted April 15, 2010)