Environmental Scientist, Arcadis
Master of Science in Applied Geosciences ’20
Susquehanna University, Bachelor of Science in Earth and Environmental Sciences ’18
Mike Sharer (MSAG ’20) got his start in geology early, performing amateur soil investigations outside as a kid and coming home covered in mud. After completing his Bachelor of Science in earth and environmental sciences from Susquehanna University, Mike looked for a graduate program that would give him the applied, technical knowledge to pursue a career in environmental site remediation and restoration. Mike recalls, “Of all the geology programs I was considering, the Master of Science in Applied Geosciences (MSAG) at Penn is the only one that prepares you to go into academia or work in industry.”
During his first year as an MSAG student, Mike attended the All Ivy Environmental and Sustainable Development Career Fair and landed an internship at the engineering company Arcadis, which soon led to a full-time environmental scientist position at the firm. “The flexibility of being able to take classes at night has been huge. It allows me, and other students who are working, to apply what we learn in class on the job, and bring insights from the field into the classroom,” Mike says. Balancing school with the unpredictable hours of fieldwork is not easy, but “MSAG professors have industry experience, so they really get it, and they go out of their way to help you succeed.” There were several evenings when Mike arrived late to class after commuting from a long day of fieldwork in New Jersey. “My professor always stayed after class with me to go over what I missed,” he remembers.
Throughout their time in the program, MSAG students work closely with an academic advisor who helps them define their academic plan, choose courses, and assess their progress. Mike selected his advisor, Chad Freed, with whom he had collaborated on research projects while still an undergraduate student at Susquehanna University. He notes, “Chad is one of the reasons I came to Penn.” When Mike told Chad about his job at Arcadis, he recalls that Chad was “surprised that I wanted to try staying on as a full-time student, but he was also really excited for me that I would be able to get the industry experience I wanted, blend what I learn at work and school, and share insights with classmates.” After a very full semester, Mike decided to “be a little smarter” and switch to part-time status at Penn as he continued his full-time work. Mike says, “Once you get into the more specialized courses, more than half of the students are working outside of going to school.” He feels supported by his MSAG peers, noting, “The students are very driven to succeed, but they want everyone else in the program to succeed, too. It’s an incredible environment to be in.”
Mike is pursuing a concentration in engineering geology. His broad undergraduate training did not include a focus in math or engineering, so he is taking as many courses in those areas as he can. His curriculum has included courses in geomechanics, the mechanical properties of solid and liquid earth materials, and geocomputations, which covers differential equations and partial differential equations that arise in geological studies. “The instructors are willing to take the time to break down the material and teach it in different ways so that it makes sense to everyone and so that we retain the information,” Mike says. He notes that he now thinks about engineering in his downtime, for example, estimating the load strength of an eye bolt in his apartment. Mike also took a rock mechanics course with his advisor, Chad, that he particularly enjoyed. For his final project in that course, Mike and his classmates assessed a rock outcrop in a park in Chester, PA, and prepared a mock proposal for the city outlining what they would need to do to build a solid foundation on the site.
For his capstone, Mike is building a hydrogeologic model of a wetland along the Susquehanna River. Initially designated as conservation land, the site is now dotted by construction projects. “There is an active quarry, and as more gravel and sand is removed, it is drawing water from the surrounding wetland,” Mike explains. He is creating a visualization based on numerical formulas to show how the process will continue to unfold across the geographic area unless construction activity is reigned in. Mike says his MSAG courses have given him a foundation to better understand the components of complex problems such as this one, and the problems that he and his colleagues engage every day at work.
With his Professional Geologist pre-certification test on the horizon, Mike is also developing project management and leadership skills through the program that will enable him to chart a fulfilling career in the field that has captivated him since childhood. He reflects, “I don’t know any other field like this one. My colleagues and I get to assess problems in the environment, analyze them, and propose solutions for clients. A lot of people think geologists just look at rocks all day. But really, we’re trying to resolve environmental issues and protect human health.”