Denniston receives national Undergraduate Research Mentor Award

William Harmon Norton Professor of Geology Rhawn Denniston has been named the recipient of the 2021 Undergraduate Research Mentor Award by the Geosciences Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR).

The CUR established this award to recognize the importance of undergraduate research and celebrate those who support and mentor students. Denniston started his teaching career at Cornell College in 2000 and has since mentored more than 50 undergraduate students across the majors of geology, environmental studies, and archaeology. Many of his students have worked with Denniston on several projects. 

Kira Fish ’19 and William Harmon Norton Professor of Geology Rhawn Denniston examine corals.
Kira Fish ’19 and William Harmon Norton Professor of Geology Rhawn Denniston

In his acceptance speech for the award, which was presented at October’s annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, Denniston thanked those who guided him as an undergraduate researcher and said mentoring students is the most important part of working at Cornell. 

“I love teaching in the classroom but spending time in the lab and in the field with my students is the best part of my job,” Denniston said. “My students regularly impress me. I’ve seen them reach way outside of their comfort zones on countless occasions–repelling into one cave or crawling past snakes in another, grinding through mountains of data and reading paper after paper to make sense of it all.” 

Cornell College Professor of Geology Emily Walsh wrote one of many letters nominating Denniston for the award. In that letter, she says Denniston understands the transformative power of research. 

“Rather than merely mentoring students in research, Rhawn provides the tools and framework for the students, and then hands over the reins,” Walsh writes. “Each student is unfailingly treated the same way—with trust and with the belief that the student can and will succeed.”

Walsh says Denniston juggles his intensive block classes and often several student research projects at the same time. That means he’s meeting with students first thing in the morning, over the lunch hour, and right after class. 

Professor Rhawn Denniston and Huong Quynh Anh Nguyen ’19 discussing a stalagmite
Denniston and Huong Quynh Anh Nguyen ’19

“The results of Rhawn’s faculty-student research collaborations can be breath-taking,” Walsh wrote in her nomination letter. “Students from every background have worked with Rhawn and have succeeded. Students who may have struggled in classes realize they are good at research and apply to graduate school with a new sense of achievement and purpose. Even those students who do not pursue major research with Rhawn come away with a valuable experience—the experience of having a professor believe wholeheartedly that they can succeed at something challenging and new. And THIS is where the magic happens.”

Not only have Denniston’s students presented their findings at the Cornell College Student Symposium, but many also present their research at national meetings, such as at the Geological Society of America or the American Geophysical Union annual meetings. In addition, 18 undergraduate students have been published with Denniston in 13 peer-reviewed journal articles over the past 14 years.

Chloe Martin '21 (left), Paige Klug '21 (center), and Professor of Geology Rhawn Denniston are spending their summer researching inside Star Chamber Cave in Western Australia.
Chloe Martin ’21 (left), Paige Klug ’21 (center), and Denniston spent a summer researching inside Star Chamber Cave in Western Australia.

Denniston has a Ph.D. in Geosciences from the University of Iowa. His research with students involves the use of stalagmites and corals as paleoenvironmental records to investigate:

  • The history of tropical Australian rainfall associated with the Australian monsoon and tropical cyclones in recent millennia
  • Climate variability in Portugal associated with Atlantic Ocean temperatures and the North Atlantic Oscillation
  • Shifts in precipitation in the Western United States across ice ages
  • Climate and vegetation change in the Midwest
  • El Niño-Southern Oscillation activity in ancient “greenhouse worlds”
  • Wet and dry periods in the Indian Summer Monsoon region of Nepal over the last 4000 years
  • Forest fire activity in the Australian tropics since AD 1000