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Geological Sciences alumna finds success in Massachusetts, Texas and the Moon!

Kathleen Vander Kaaden’s career so far has been truly out of this world, and it all started at Salem State University.

As Kathleen Vander Kaaden ’10 was preparing to leave high school in the small town of Assonet, Mass., she knew, like so many other Salem State students, that she’d be on her own to make college happen.

After focusing on her academics, she applied to Bridgewater State University, Framingham State and Salem State. With the Abigail Adams and Tsongas Scholarships available to her, Kathleen chose Salem State because of the tremendous education program. She learned about the School of Education through two friends attending the university. The decision was made, and Kathleen enrolled as an elementary education and mathematics dual major.

However, after taking two geology courses as electives, she realized that a change might be required. After meeting Salem State professors Jeanette and Pete Sablock, that thought was confirmed.

Through her education with professors Sablocks, Kathleen was invited to attend “Field Camp” the summer after her sophomore year.

“It was having the opportunity to study and learn about the earth and its composition that made the decision to switch majors so easy, I was hooked,” Kathleen said.  Spending a summer studying the earth paved a way for a new love in her life and she returned to Salem State with a new major in mind: geological sciences.

Two completed MTELs in hand, she made the difficult decision to switch majors in her junior year, and never looked back. Even though changing majors meant she might have to pay out of pocket, she knew it would be worth it. And she was right. This change led to her taking classes in petrology and the geology of the solar system. Her fire for the sciences continued to burn and Kathleen graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geological sciences.

After much consideration about her future, Kathleen decided to pursue an advanced degree in the sciences and was subsequently selected to become a research and teaching assistant at the University of New Mexico. This led to an opportunity to earn a master’s degree while working closely with the Director of the Institute of Meteoritics, Carl Agee.

When her master’s degree was completed in 2012, she knew there was more she still wanted to learn and was accepted into the PhD program at the University of New Mexico working with Francis McCubbin. Spending three years at UNM working on her doctoral degree, the chance to move to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas was presented to her and she jumped at the opportunity. Kathleen served as an intern at JSC for the curator of astromaterials, with a specific area of study focused on the planetary makeup of Mercury and the Moon.

Hired as a civilian contractor with Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc. after finishing her PhD in 2016 and a short postdoctoral position with the Lunar and Planetary Institute under the advisement of Dave Draper, Kathleen has remained in Houston since. She has since been promoted twice to the positions of lab manager of experimental petrology and then to her current position of project manager of basic and applied research.

Now, her work focuses on the fascinating subject of planetary structure and lava-filled compositions within those planets.

“Having an understanding of the compositions of the planets and especially their surfaces can help us learn more about the history and evolution of the planet throughout time,” she explained Her published PhD thesis chronicled the composition of Mercury and its graphite flotation crust; a thesis that has yet to be disproven.

In addition to her current work, Kathleen has worked with soil and dirt samples collected from Apollo 16 and samples collected from the Mare Basalt on the near side of the moon. This is done to help produce epoxy samples for science classrooms across the country.

Even though her work has brought her a long way from where she started, Kathleen has never forgotten her roots in Assonet and Salem, Massachusetts.

“I had such a great experience [at Salem State] and I know it helped set me up for success in everything I’ve done since. Pete and Jeanette [Sablock] were so helpful in guiding me and stoking my interest in the sciences. I love Salem State.”

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