Cracking Open Geosciences with Jesse Gu

Kyungseok Jung | Associate Editor of Natural Sciences

Jesse Gu is a second-year geology major in the Jackson School of Geosciences. Jesse has worked as an undergraduate research assistant in several labs since arriving on campus. He has also been actively involved with the Undergraduate Geological Society and Engineering Chamber Orchestra.

Hoping to pursue a career as a researcher, Jesse provided us with his insights and adventure thus far at UT.

The interview has been edited for clarity. Photos courtesy of Jesse Gu.

One quirk of student research is that getting a foot in the door is one of the most difficult steps – particularly for freshmen. Jesse describes his own search for a research position starting very early on in his undergraduate studies:

At the beginning of my freshman year, I wanted to become involved with research to determine whether I wanted to aim for academia or industry after college. I spent a lot of time reading about the research of professors in the Jackson School. Then, I contacted professors whose research I found interesting, even though it was difficult for me to understand the details of their research at the time. I was turned down by a lot of the professors before I found the opportunity to work with a postdoc who studied noble gases in basalts to better understand the evolution of the Earth’s mantle. 

I performed data analysis for the postdoc, and I was able to present my work at the Jackson School Symposium and the Geological Society of America’s South-Central meeting last year. Several months ago, the postdoc left for a position as an assistant professor at a different university. He referred me to Dr. Jung-Fu ‘Afu’ Lin and his Mineral Physics Lab, and I have been working with a graduate student in the lab since.”

Jesse and his graduate student mentor in the Mineral Physics Lab research the formation of methane hydrates in the Gulf of Mexico. The supply of hydrates on Earth contains more carbon than all other fossil fuel reserves in the world combined, so understanding how hydrates form and dissociate has important energy applications and is vital for better understanding climate change.

During their experiments, cells containing water, methane, and porous glass beads are placed under conditions that simulate the formation of hydrates under the sea floor. Then, a technique known as Raman spectroscopy is employed to characterize the compositions of the experimental samples. In this case, it is used to distinguish initial methane vapors from methane hydrates.
Research is a time-consuming endeavor, and Jesse noted that he spent a significant portion of his time outside of the classroom in the lab. He discussed several motivations for his commitment to research.

It’s fascinating to apply knowledge that I have learned in the classroom to real-world scenarios. However, my favorite thing about engaging in research is the community that I have grown to be a part of. It’s amazing to see how so many people of different backgrounds are bound by a common desire to expand knowledge on a topic that few are aware even exist. Best of all, engaging in research has allowed me to develop relationships with motivated undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and professors that I wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise.

Jesse plans to continue with research for the rest of his undergraduate career. When asked about his career aspirations, he expressed his desire to pursue a PhD.

Exposure to research as an undergraduate has solidified my desire to pursue a career in research. I’m not sure at the moment what field I would like to eventually explore. After obtaining a PhD, I’ll see where my research takes me.

Finally, having made great strides since arriving on campus a year ago, Jesse left us with his advice for other undergraduates who might want to dip their toes into the world of research:

Reach out to your professors! It’s definitely intimidating, but usually, they’re really nice and will be happy to talk to you about their research. Ask questions to clarify your understanding of their work, and demonstrate your interest in getting involved!

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