Gary Solar, associate professor of Earth Sciences and Science Education, has been including undergraduate students in his research since his arrival on campus in 2000. He is known as a mentor who students work with, not a professor they work for.
The Rock Man
Solar’s areas of expertise include structural geology, igneous and metamorphic petrology, and tectonics. Ancient tectonics is Solar’s specialty; he focuses his research on rocks to understand the formation and evolution of the earth’s crust up until the time of the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. In other words, he digs rocks—literally.
Solar’s expertise in geology and tectonic processes and his intense interest in the success of his student researchers make him an ideal research mentor and field trip leader.
“Every major course I teach has field trips associated with them,” said Solar. “So, we have four-day or more field trips to take students on. I always tell the students; the field trips are more important than the classes. The lectures and the labs support the field experience, not the other way.”
Outstanding in their Field
Solar encourages his students to take ownership of a project and, therefore, their contributions have been significant. His students have presented papers at regional or national professional conferences and have presented at the annual Student Research and Creativity Conference since 2001.
“They do their own field work, sometimes with me, most time not,” said Solar. “This all comes from the fact that we get students out in the field as much as we possibly can. They go to meetings and conferences and then the next year, they're presenting at those same meetings. It really sparks something in them, and we give them the opportunities to do this kind of independent work.
Solar has been recognized for his role as a mentor, winning the President’s Award for Excellence as an Undergraduate Research Mentor in 2010 and SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2011.
He is often the first person on campus to introduce students to the rewards of performing fundamentally sound research and the advantages of obtaining a graduate degree. He has a knack for connecting students with appropriate research projects. Solar sees field work and research not just as vital learning components, but as crucial pieces of the student experience.
“The other part of our field trips is not the geology of it, it's the social part of it, said Solar. “They learn a lot just from being with each other and from being with me, in a social way. I'm not talking about unconnected social experiences: I'm talking about what they can do with their careers; what courses are going to be best for them to take; and what things do they need for acceptance to graduate school.”