COSAM News Articles 2020 April Auburn University’s College of Sciences and Mathematics Awards the First Ph.D. in Earth System Science

Auburn University’s College of Sciences and Mathematics Awards the First Ph.D. in Earth System Science

Published: 04/28/2020

By: Melanie Vynalek

Nick Soltis’ final semester did not go as expected, and his commencement ceremony is now scheduled on a date a few months later than originally planned. However, the accomplishments of this soon-to-be graduate are nothing short of amazing, making a mark in the College of Sciences and Mathematics’ (COSAM) history.

“I didn’t actually choose the program, I guess you could say it chose me,” Soltis said.

Soltis began his Ph.D. with Karen McNeal at North Carolina State University just a few years ago. When McNeal took a position at Auburn, Soltis made the decision to follow in suit, and transferred his work to The Plains.

“This was prior to the start of the Ph.D. program, so it was in a way a shot in the dark. However, I really wanted to continue to work with Karen and was really intrigued about the idea of a doctorate in Earth System Science as opposed to just geology,” he said.

Growing up, Soltis was always interested in some form of science, whether plants, animals, rocks, weather, or stars. As an undergraduate, he decided he wanted to be a science teacher, and after completing his bachelor’s degree, went on to teach six years of middle school science while pursuing two master’s degrees – one in education, and the other in geosciences.

“Once I started to think about doctoral programs, I learned that there were actually research programs that blended geoscience research with education, which ended up being a perfect fit for me based on my interests.  The Earth systems focus of the Ph.D. really fits my research interests as it emphasized the interconnectedness of all components of the Earth and the very interdisciplinary nature of the geosciences – something that more traditional geology programs sometimes miss out on. So in the end, the Ph.D. in Earth system science ended up being the perfect fit for my own broad interests and background,” Soltis said.

The Ph.D. program allows for flexibility and a great deal of interdisciplinary work. While Soltis specialized in geosciences, other students chose concentrations such as forestry, engineering, agriculture, and social sciences. The PhD curriculum includes three required courses – one on Earth system science and global change, another on observation and analysis of the Earth system, and lastly, a seminar. The remaining credits are flexible, Soltis said, completing majority of his in geology, but also taking classes in education, educational research methods, psychology, and forestry.

On top of coursework, teaching and research are a vital part of pursuing a graduate degree. Soltis taught a variety of labs and field courses as a teaching assistant at Auburn, and even had the opportunity to lead a 75-person lecture. He also serves as instructor of record for Auburn’s online Dynamic Earth Class. On top of teaching, Soltis focused the bulk of his research on blending the field of Earth system science, biogeochemistry, and education in order to pinpoint how students understand and how instructors teach complex Earth systems curriculum.

He recently defended his dissertation on characterizing and assessing teaching practices related to systems thinking skills in undergraduate geoscience courses, as well as understanding how students may best develop these skills. His dissertation involved analyzing survey data on teaching practices, conducting a qualitative study exploring how students conceptualize complex Earth systems, and examining the development of a research-grade instrument to measure systems thinking in Earth sciences and psychometrics, Soltis said.

On top of all this, Soltis serves in any way he can to help make the geosciences department more diverse. During his time in the program, Soltis worked on a project with colleagues at the University of Texas, Austin and the GeoFORCE program. The program seeks to expose high school students to the geosciences through free summer academies, allowing them to visit field sites all over the country. Soltis served the program specifically by conducting research on its effectiveness and by teaching a field course in Oregon.

As his time at Auburn comes to a close, Soltis looks forward to obtaining a tenure track position teaching geosciences at a teaching-focused institution. His time at Auburn has taught him how to obtain and preserve a work-life balance of teaching, research, and personal life that he will take with him into the next phase of his career, Soltis said.

Soltis thanks the university, and COSAM specifically, for the incredible faculty he has interacted with and learned from, and for the amazing opportunities provided to him, such as study abroad trips to the Bahamas and Iceland.

“While I’m grateful for the education and experiences I have had as a doctoral student, I am also just as grateful for the people that I have met and the lifelong relationships I have formed with people during my time here,” Soltis said.

“Congratulations, Nick! Thank you for your incredible contribution to COSAM and the Department of Geosciences,” said McNeal. “He has participated in national conferences including The Geological Society of America and The Earth Educator's Rendezvous as well as having his work published in two journals - Geosphere and The Journal of Geography in Higher Education.”

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