SOEST undergraduate dives deep into geophysics in Hawai‘i, Alaska

During his pursuit of an undergraduate degree in earth sciences at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Casey Wandasan has had several standout experiences that shaped the trajectory of his academic journey. Ongoing research on the inner workings of two volcanoes in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska with a UH Mānoa professor and an open ocean research cruise solidified his plans to pursue geophysics in graduate school. 

“The cruise and my research experiences have been transformative, exposing me to marine geophysics, emphasizing the unity of science and community, and honing my adaptability in research, significantly amplifying my skills for future endeavors,” said Wandasan.

Wandasan works with earth sciences assistant professor Helen Janiszewski in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) to help with her efforts to understand magma storage depths and seismic characteristics at two volcanoes in the Aleutian islands of Alaska. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, they analyze seismic information to determine the structures and layers beneath the subsurface of the volcanoes. 

In fall 2023, Wandasan participated in a 10-day, open ocean research cruise aboard the University of Hawai‘i research vessel Kilo Moana. He sailed with graduate students, faculty, staff, ship’s crew, and other students on a STEMSEAS (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Student Experiences Aboard Ships) research cruise to map the Molokaʻi Fracture Zone, gather bathymetric, gravity and magnetic data, and attempt remotely-operated vehicle dives at the undersea volcano Kamaʻehuakanaloa. 

“I embraced this unique experience that not many undergraduates get to have,” said Wandasan, who graduated as valedictorian of Wai‘anae High School in 2018. “Throughout the cruise, I had a variety of opportunities to delve deeper into geophysical research.”

The path to pursuing geoscience 

At Wai‘anae High School, Wandasan participated in the early college program and graduated having credits for eight college courses. He then completed an associate’s degree in natural sciences from Leeward Community College, where he was also a tutor for math and the Hawai‘i  Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative, which aims to build capacity at Native Hawaiian-serving institutions and prepare students for STEM degree completion and careers. 

In Spring 2020, Wandasan began course work at UH Mānoa as a dual major in physics and math, which is still one of his favorite subjects. By 2021, he, like so many others persisting through the global pandemic, felt like the past year had been a real challenge and realized he needed a change. 

“During this time, I continued with math as a hobby, learning 324 digits of pi, and I felt like learning geography so I memorized all 215 countries of the world: the correct pronunciation of their names, geographic location, and flags,” said Wandasan. “I realized if I could combine physics, math and geography/geology, you get geophysics and realized this was what I wanted to do.” 

He was warmly welcomed into the Department of Earth Sciences in 2022 by Bridget Smith-Konter, professor and instructor for a course on earthquakes into which Wandasan enrolled. She also introduced him to Janiszewski.

“Casey has a rare, genuine curiosity about the world that pushes him well beyond assigned tasks and minimum requirements,” said Janiszewski. “This is matched by his willingness to challenge himself by pursuing new and unfamiliar experiences. It has been a privilege to watch him develop independence in his research over the past two years, and I am excited to follow his career as it progresses.”  

Taking research to an international conference

To share his and Janiszewski’s Aleutian volcanoes research findings with an international audience, Wandasan presented a poster at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, CA in December 2023. That event is the largest annual gathering of geoscientists in the world, with around 25,000 attendees from over 100 countries. 

“The undergraduate research I’ve done with Helen and her encouragement have helped me tremendously,” said Wandasan. “I wouldn’t have thought of going to university outside of Hawai‘i if it wasn’t for her.”

Wandasan is graduating in May 2024 and will be attending University of California, Davis for graduate school. There, he will be working with Magali Billen who’s research involves regional specific geodynamic modeling of subduction zones. 

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