Teach the Earth > Early Career > Developing a Research Program > Marshall case study

Dr. Jeff Marshall

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA

Jeff Marshall. Photo courtesy of Jeff Marshall and Cal Poly Pomona.
Most of the information on this page is from an interview conducted by Carol Ormand on March 2, 2006.

Jeff Marshall is a recently tenured associate professor in the Geological Sciences Department at Cal Poly Pomona, in southern California. Cal Poly Pomona - known formally as the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona - is part of the 23-campus California State University system, and is one of the few polytechnic universities in the country. Located 30 miles east of Los Angeles, in one of the fastest growing suburban regions in the U.S., Cal Poly Pomona serves a highly diverse population of 19,000 primarily undergraduate students. Most of these students live at home and commute to campus on local freeways, attending classes during either day or night sessions. Originally an agricultural college, Cal Poly Pomona has evolved into a modern comprehensive university that offers a hands-on education for undergraduate students.

In the CSU system, teaching is the primary faculty responsibility, although there is a growing expectation of research activity. The members of the Geological Sciences Department at Cal Poly Pomona place a strong emphasis on engaging students in their research programs. The department offers two undergraduate majors, Geology and Integrated Earth Studies. Students pursuing the traditional Geology track are required to complete a senior thesis research project prior to graduation.

Cal Poly Pomona geology students Fookgiin Khaw, Julie Parra, and Lauren Annis examining outcrop of Nicoya Complex basalt, Costa Rica.. Photo courtesy of Jeff Marshall. Click on photo to see larger version.

Create attractive opportunities

Jeff is a geomorphologist with research interests in active tectonics, coastal processes, and river geomorphology. He is also a Geosciences councilor with the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR). (more info) To entice students to work with him, Jeff relies on developing attractive and interesting research opportunities. Over the past five years, his students have worked on international research projects in Costa Rica and Australia, as well as several local investigations in southern California. Jeff's Costa Rica research expands upon his graduate work at Pennsylvania State University and UC Santa Cruz. The Australia project was part of the Keck Geology Consortium undergraduate research program.

Of the four students currently conducting research with Jeff, two did their fieldwork on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and two are working locally in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills. Jeff recruited students to work in Costa Rica by giving talks in the department colloquium about his previous Costa Rica trips and resulting student research projects. The local work in the San Gabriel Mountains grew out of projects from his Geomorphology class. While the international projects offer the attraction of travel to an exotic location, the local projects have the appeal of easy access, right in the students' "own back yard."

Jeff Marshall with Cal Poly Pomona student Terri Amborn presenting Australia research results at 2003 Keck Geology Consortium Research Symposium, Beloit, WI. Photo courtesy of Jeff Marshall. Click on photo to see larger version.

Jeff encourages his research students to present their results at professional meetings. For example, all four of his current students will present posters at the 2006 GSA Cordilleran section meeting in Anchorage, AK. In general, Jeff will write a preliminary group abstract for the national GSA or AGU meeting, then have his students work together to create and present the poster. As each individual student's research progresses, he mentors them in preparing their own abstracts and posters for the ensuing Cordilleran section meeting. His students have also presented talks and posters for local geological societies and at regional meetings such as the Southern California Conference on Undergraduate Research (SCCUR).

Challenges and strategies: finding money and time

The two biggest challenges Jeff faces in supervising student research are money and time. In a state university like Cal Poly Pomona, it seems like there's never enough of either, he says. So far, he has been successful in obtaining internal funding, via on-campus competitive research funds that favor newer faculty. He is now pursuing external funding through NSF and other agencies. Finding time is a different kind of challenge. Jeff's students come to their projects with great enthusiasm and high expectations, but often find it hard to follow through as the term progresses and the demands on their time increase. Jeff meets this challenge by creating a quarterly research schedule for each student, with specific goals and a timeline. He establishes a rapport with his students that includes a mutual expectation for follow-through.

In an ideal world, Jeff says, he likes to meet with each of his research students once per week, on a regular schedule, to pursue the goals set at the beginning of each quarter. In reality, however, his students lead very busy lives, most of them living off campus with jobs and families. It is not uncommon to have to reschedule research meetings or occasionally to cancel them. Nonetheless, Jeff finds that setting goals and having periodic meetings does help his students to make progress. During their meetings, Jeff and his students discuss recent accomplishments, work together on certain tasks, and plan for the coming week. What they do depends a great deal on where the student's research is at that time; for example, they might work on an illustration, evaluate a data set, or examine field samples or thin sections. To prepare for professional conferences, they will also spend time discussing how to best present their findings. According to Jeff, the looming deadline of a conference presentation often serves as one of the most motivating factors influencing student productivity.

Cal Poly Pomona geology students Eli LaFromboise and John Utick collecting beach sand samples for petrographic analysis, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Jeff Marshall. Click on photo to see larger version.

Choosing research questions

Although Jeff's research program is currently evolving to include a local component, the main theme of his research continues to be tectonic geomorphology. In particular, he studies the recent history of crustal deformation and landscape evolution in tectonically active regions. His work in Costa Rica is a direct outgrowth of his graduate studies, examining geomorphic and structural evidence for active faulting along a convergent margin. His current students are investigating coastal uplift rates on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula using marine terraces and paleo-beach deposits. While the physical environment of California's San Gabriel Mountains is quite different, the research goals are similar: studying uplifted alluvial fan remnants to decipher the tectonic history along a transpressive mountain front.

Jeff's local research in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills grew out of a required research project in his geomorphology class. (Microsoft Word 118kB Mar14 06) These efforts allow him to apply his research interests locally, and are cheaper to finance and more attractive to those students with limited free time. To develop research questions for his class projects, Jeff spent part of a summer conducting intensive local reconnaissance. From that initial work, he constructed a list of possible, locally focused research questions. Each quarter, he takes his geomorphology class on preliminary field trips to pre-selected sites, forms research teams, and has them choose their projects from his list of options.

To facilitate student success, Jeff chooses his field sites carefully; each site has to meet key criteria for easy access and good exposure. First, each site must be accessible from campus during a 3-hour lab period. Second, the students need to be able to revisit a site later on their own time. Third, each site has to have enough field evidence available so that students can address an appropriate research question. Fortunately, Cal Poly Pomona is situated at the northern edge of the L.A. basin, in the foothills of the tectonically active San Gabriel Mountains. Access to excellent field sites, therefore, is generally not a major problem. However, many of the better sites in the foothill region are rapidly disappearing beneath the urban sprawl. This often requires a creative approach to research: working with limited field data, supplemented by older maps, aerial photos, and prior research reports.

Advice for new faculty members

Jeff offers the following advice for new faculty members:
  • To develop good research projects for undergraduates:
    • Look for accessible, data-rich field areas - especially near your campus.
    • Be creative in developing interesting and challenging research questions. Be sure, however, to limit student research projects to manageable, tightly focused problems.
    • Build projects around prior research with relevant publications; it helps when your students can see how other scientists have approached similar questions in similar settings.
    • Find opportunities for collaboration with other faculty, especially if they have a record of success in doing research projects with undergraduate students.
  • Seek out funding immediately. Take full advantage of on-campus grant programs. Get to know the people in your college's research office. Keep a high profile and let other faculty and students know about your undergraduate research program.
  • When it comes to choosing students to work with, be selective. Observe the students in your department, and think about which ones would do well. Courses, especially small classes, give you the opportunity to get to know your students well enough to make this kind of decision.
  • Incorporate research into your course pedagogy. Use this as an opportunity to test ideas and observe students.
  • Build a rapport with your students. Be supportive and respectful of their needs and abilities. Demonstrate that you are serious about research, but don't be afraid to show your students that science can be fun.