Cal State LA geology graduate determined to protect water resources
She will start a Ph.D. program at University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall.
By Sandy Banks | Cal State LA News Service
ITwas the sort of “ah-ha” moment that would define LeAnn Zuñiga’s academic career.
As a Cal State LA sophomore, she was exploring the Colorado River as part of an honors semester project, when her career ambitions became as crystal clear as the water swirling around her legs.
“I knew I wanted to protect and research water,” Zuñiga says.
Until then, she had her heart set on studying earthquakes. Before that, she was fascinated by infectious diseases. She’d enrolled in Cal State LA as a microbiology major in 2015, but by the end of her freshman year she’d switched to geology.
“In microbiology, everything had been so small,” she recalls. “Geology seemed so big and so relevant. It’s the science of looking at the earth, and I found that fascinating. … And once I experienced the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, I realized that hydrology was the perfect field for me.”
During that National Collegiate Honors Council field study program at Northern Arizona University in 2016, Zuñiga learned that the life-giving springs of the Colorado Plateau were being contaminated by residue from uranium mines on public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon National Park.
“I developed a deeper understanding of the importance of water,” she says. “I could see that the threat to our future is real. And I realized that I could use research to better the world and help communities.”
Zuñiga graduated on May 21 with a Bachelor of Science in Geology with an option in environmental geosciences. She has been accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she will continue studying water and how it moves in earth systems.
Ultimately, Zuñiga envisions developing a model that scientists can use to study and prevent groundwater contamination.
Zuñiga already has a head start on that quest. She spent the past two summers assigned to prestigious National Science Foundation research projects, exploring the natural forces that affect water quality.
In 2017 at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, she studied dispersivity in porous media, with the aim of developing a simple model that hydrologists could use in the field to track the movement of contaminants through aquifers like sand, gravel and permeable rock.
In 2018 at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Zuñiga was part of a team that examined the role of water-level fluctuations generated by wind-driven waves on the biogeochemistry of freshwater lakes. Their research was so impressive, Zuñiga was invited to present the findings at the annual conference of the Geological Society of America held last fall.
She says her passion for research was sparked by National Geographic magazine: “I read a couple of articles that made it sound cool, like something I’d like to do.”
She got a nudge from a science teacher at what is now Alverno Heights Academy in Sierra Madre, who encouraged the sophomore to apply for a summer research program at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
“I applied and was accepted, but had no idea what I was doing,” Zuñiga recalls.
She spent that summer studying atmospheric photochemistry—a field that addresses environmental issues including acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming—and knew she’d found her calling.
“That was the first time I really understood that being a scientist wasn’t just this far away job that only other people could achieve,” Zuñiga said. “That I could actually be paid to do research. That this could be a career for me.”
She returned to Alverno—an all-girls, Catholic school—determined to share that revelation. With the help of her teacher, she started a club for budding scientists and built a partnership with Caltech that included an agenda of ambitious research projects, from mapping DNA to improving solar panels.
After graduating in 2015, Zuñiga became the first in her family to attend college. She was admitted to the Cal State LA Honors College with a full scholarship. Two years later, her younger brother joined her on campus.
“It was the Honors College that really drew me in,” Zuñiga said. “I knew I wanted to go to grad school, so writing an honors thesis would be a huge and important thing for me.”
But it was also the many opportunities for growth as a person that made the university experience so rewarding for her.
She took on leadership roles with the Geosciences Club and National Society of Collegiate Scholars. And she discovered new avenues for outreach when she volunteered with the Student Health Advisory Committee as an advocate for the importance of healthy lifestyle choices, like good nutrition and restorative sleep.
As she looks back on her four years at Cal State LA, Zuñiga realizes that she has learned as much about herself as she’s learned about geology.
“I realized that I’m pretty resilient,” she says. “I don’t like to give up, which is pretty important in research because a lot of the time things don’t work out the way you want them to.”
And she’s learned the value of flexibility. “There’s this huge pressure when you’re going to college: You have to figure out who you want to be. You’re expected to know what you want to do for the rest of your life.”
That’s a lot of pressure—and a little unrealistic.
“Right now, I love hydrology,” Zuñiga says. “It’s super interesting … But maybe that’s not what I’ll end up doing in the long run. Things change, and I think it’s good to keep your options open.”
“If you find yourself going in a different direction than you thought when you started out, you should just go along with it,” she says. “It means you’re expanding your horizons. And you’re learning more than if you had just stayed in the same pinhole.”
Zuñiga knows that insecurities can lead some young people to believe that college is off-limits to them.
“But college shouldn’t be this big scary thing,” she says. “Just do your best and do what’s interesting to you. Opportunities will come up. You just have to be there and be prepared.”