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Fourteen-Year Hiatus from College—and Then a Layoff— Didn't Deter Lehman Geology Grad Wanda Vargas (B.A. '10), Who's Now Headed for a Ph.D.

June 4, 2010

Wanda Vargas

Wanda Vargas just won't quit. The Lehman geology major, who returned to college after fourteen years in the workforce and then was laid off from her job, not only earned her college degree this spring—she'll enter Cornell University's Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Ph.D. program in the fall.

Vargas first entered college as a mathematics major at a private university, but it quickly became difficult for her to support herself and remain in school. She left in 1990 to become a corporate secretary and did not resume her studies until 2004, when the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami triggered her desire to help find a better warning system. "It dawned on me that my day-to-day work was not contributing to my personal growth," says the native of Puerto Rico, who grew up traveling between there and Manhattan.

She also was greatly affected by Hurricane Jeanne, which made a direct and devastating landfall on Puerto Rico in September of that same year. Vargas began attending classes at Lehman part-time while working full-time. Then, in 2009, she was laid off, but "immediately saw the advantage in this setback."

Deciding to focus solely on her coursework as a full-time student, she began working with Physics Professor Christopher Gerry as an undergraduate research assistant and was mentored by Environmental, Geographic, and Geological Sciences Professor Heather Sloan. She also went on three oceanographic expeditions—one on the Long Island Sound and two in the area of the East Pacific Rise. On the latter trip, she was able to dive to a depth of 2,527 meters in an Alvin submersible and see the bottom of the ocean floor.

At Lehman, Vargas also was introduced to organizations like MSPHDS (Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success) and SACNAS (Society Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science), which presented opportunities for her to travel to Antarctica, Alaska and throughout the United States. In a ten-day trip to Antarctica in 2007, she researched glacier melt-and-retreat by using a technique for photo comparisons called photogrammetry.

"We came across a photo from the 1930s," she notes, "and when we did a comparison, we found that there was significant loss for that particular glacier. That was just one glacier. Imagine a whole continent with glaciers experiencing the same thing."

Before beginning coursework at Cornell, Vargas will visit China for a one-month study program with the University of Missouri, focusing on geology and geo-hazards and their impact. She plans to continue conducting research in this field and possibly work one day with the Department of Homeland Security's natural disaster division.

She is grateful for the opportunities to learn and grow as a person and a scholar at Lehman. "The faculty members are amazing people, dedicated to their passions," she says. "When I get nervous about graduate school, I think back to my first semester returning to school. I have gained a confidence and belief in myself that I can accept a challenge, obtain my goal and move beyond it."