BLACKSBURG — Summer Caton graduates from Virginia Tech this week, but her studies are far from over. But, that’s all part of her plan.
“College is really about a love of learning and the pursuit of knowledge and discovery. That’s what I love about it,” the senior from Charlottesville, Virginia, said.
On Friday, Caton will earn a degree in biological sciences from the College of Science. A month later, she will be back on campus, taking another year-and-a-half to finish a second degree in geosciences.
When Caton began her studies at Virginia Tech, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. After some soul-searching the first couple of years of study, she shifted to an ecology focus, but a study abroad trip to New Zealand during winter session of her junior year cultivated her passion for geology.
“On part of the trip, we studied glaciers and talked about climate change. We actually got to go visit and walk on Fox Glacier. As corny as it sounds, it was love at first sight. The moment we turned the corner and I saw the glacier for the first time, my fate was sealed and I knew I had to learn more and study glaciers at some point in my academic career,” Caton said.
When she returned, Caton began reading everything she could about glaciers and sought out professors on campus who could help her learn more about her budding interest.
“I’ve always believed that the relationships you build with professors are, for me, probably the biggest importance of college and being here,” Caton said. “They are masters in their subject. You can see the passion in their eyes when they talk about it.”
She didn’t hesitate to reach out on her own to professors, something she learned early on from her first-year biology professor, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences George Simmons. “He always encouraged you to know your professors, talk to them. We have a great relationship,” said Caton, who worked as a teaching assistant for Simmons for a couple years. “Even five years later, we still get coffee.”
To learn more about glaciers, Caton looked over the geosciences website, researching faculty members and their areas of study. Caton connected with James Spotila, professor of geology, and his graduate student, Michelle Fame, who Caton is now working with on an undergraduate research project. She will be doing fieldwork at Devil’s Marbleyard, a popular hiking spot north of Roanoke, to discover if periglacial processes impacted the rock fall there.
Caton gained additional flexibility to do research and connect with interesting faculty members through the University Honors program. She serves as president of the Honors Ambassadors, whose main role is to facilitate conversation and interaction not only between honors students and faculty and staff, but also between each other. “I really fell in love with what University Honors does. The environment that they foster for students is really great. It has a special feeling to it.”
Even after finishing her second degree, Caton doesn’t plan on leaving higher education any time soon. After wrestling with whether to pursue a master’s degree and work a “normal” job, a poignant conversation with one of her mentors, George Simmons, solidified her decision to pursue a doctorate, eventually becoming a professor to pass her love of learning on to other students.
“He always kind of knows people better than they know themselves. He encouraged me to be a professor,” Caton said. “I really believe that you should love what you do. I don’t want my job to be just something I get through.”
No matter how her path may change along the way, learning will be at the center of it all. “I hope in 10 or 20 years, I’m just doing something I love. Hopefully, it keeps me outside, hiking around and exploring. A life of exploration and discovery is really a great way to live. I hope to inspire other students like my professors have inspired me.”