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Climbing His Way to the Top

By Jessica Powers

The recipe for success may be as simple as combining your favorite recreational activity and your field of study, at least in the case of Matthew Massey; avid rock climber, doctoral graduate in Earth and Environmental Sciences and winner of the Journal of Structural Geology’s Student Author of the Year Award for 2011.

Initially, Massey’s research on “Microstructure and crystallographic preferred orientation of polycrystalline microgarnet aggregates developed during progressive creep, recovery and grain boundary sliding” had everyone interested, and slightly confused because his research was so new and innovative. No one had seen those types of garnets in rocks or had thought to analyze them in the manner that Massey did.

It looked interesting to geologists who look at tiny mineralogic features, but the geologists who attempt to relate those tiny features to deformation of the crust and formation of mountain belts were left at a bit of a loss because the connection between the two had never been acknowledged previously.

Massey was soon awarded a scholarship from the Graduate School to study abroad at the University of Liverpool. He was able to work with David Prior, a prestigious professor, using a new technique for collecting data called EBSD: electron backscatter diffraction. Prior also helped critique Massey’s interpretations for his dissertation and address some of the concerns the peer reviews had posed, making him the second author of the award winning paper.

There isn’t a formal application process for the award. After reviewing published pieces, a panel selects what they deem to be the "best". This panel includes scholars from Norway, France and other countries.

“I knew I had a good paper that presented really cool research, but being notified of the award many months later was a really big surprise!”

“I did a lot of work on the manuscript both before submission, and then addressing peer reviews,” said Massey. “The reviews were very positive, but each provided many critiques/questions. I addressed all of these concerns, which greatly improved the manuscript before final publication.”

The third author on the paper, Massey’s UK advisor Dr. David Moecher, helped throughout the process editing Massey’s dissertation and critiquing his research. Moecher also helped arrange the collaboration between Prior and Massey while he was studying abroad.

“What’s great about Matthew’s paper is that it is 95% his work, and that’s what you want from a Ph.D. candidate. He demonstrated that he is his own scientist. Students like him make us advisors look good,” Moecher joked. “If he can climb a 100-foot cliff out at the gorge while researching…he can do anything in my view.”

What’s next for Massey after completing his Ph.D.? Moecher is currently writing a support proposal for a post-doc opportunity for Massey who, until then, will be off discovering yet another ground-breaking topic while rock climbing…leaving researchers scratching their heads, and scholars applauding his unique aspect for geology.