A love for learning and Lake Superior is what lured graduating senior Megan McPeak to Northland College—and may someday bring her back. “I knew this was my time to be here—in my favorite place in the world—and to really focus on learning,” McPeak explained.
Focused indeed. She double-majored in math and meteorology, and double-minored in chemistry and physics.
Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Young Kim said McPeak’s motivation is an inspiration to other students. “As Megan commenced her study four years ago, she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish with her time at Northland College—she planned, worked hard, and made it,” Kim said.
After graduation, McPeak will be headed to the University of Alabama doctoral program in atmospheric science with a specialized interest in atmospheric chemistry with full scholarship, research position, and month stipend.
“I will be working with Dr. [Shanhu] Lee who is looking at reaction rates of reactions in the atmosphere, particulate size distribution, and she does a lot of field campaigns to look at polluted versus clean air,” McPeak said. “I’ll essentially be helping in her research, while taking classes.”
Researching atmospheric mercury at the Bad River Air Site for the past two years gave McPeak a taste for the type of research she hopes to carry on—research that allows her to blend meteorology, math, chemistry and physics—and encouraged her to apply to grad school.
“We were looking at the gaseous elemental mercury because we found that in the early morning we would see drops below the theoretical minimum…. So, I set out to find out what was happening,” McPeak explained.
According to McPeak, when mercury levels are recorded below the theoretical minimum it is often thought to be a result of faulty equipment. However, she utilized two instruments side-by-side and both produced the same data.
McPeak concluded that mercury was being absorbed into the early morning dew. With that knowledge, she wanted to know if it was possible to trace the drops back to the source. McPeak worked at the US Geological Survey’s Mercury Research Lab in Middleton, Wisconsin, where she learned about isotopes—“which can help determine the source of mercury. But this is usually used on fish,” McPeak continued.
Since September, McPeak has been working with the USGS Lab to use this type of technology in her own study. However, the process is new and the results will not be conclusive for some time.
Although hands-on research opportunities have been vital to McPeak’s success in developing her passion, she said the most important part of her Northland experience was learning from Sharon Anthony, professor of environmental science. “She deserves a huge thank you,” McPeak said.
Having worked closely with McPeak, Anthony feels she has the ability to contribute meaningful work to academia and research someday. “Megan’s passion for meteorology and atmospheric chemistry has made her a joy to work with over the past four years… I can’t wait to see what she will do with her PhD,” Anthony said.
“Megan really likes the puzzle of investigating atmospheric systems. I will miss working with her.” McPeak recently returned from her first visit to the Huntsville campus. She’s looking forward to her studies, but will miss the community she has become accustomed to.
The weather in Alabama is a stark contrast to the seasons found on Lake Superior, and not an environment McPeak is willing to invest in permanently. She doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do with her doctorate degree, however McPeak sees herself moving back to the Midwest.
“I know I want to learn something new everyday,” McPeak said. “I don’t want to just work at a desk, I don’t want to just work in a lab, and I don’t want to just work in the field… And it would be amazing to live by the lake again.”
Amber Mullen ’12, a graduate of Northland College and a freelance journalist, is the author of this article.