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Finding a way to science

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Tyler Kukla and other students working outside
(Photo Source: Tyler Kukla)

Tyler Kukla

PhD Student
Geological Sciences

April 19, 2019

Actor, author, or architect. Those were the three options that Tyler Kukla considered as possible careers when he was a kid. “I kind of worked my way through the alphabet. After the As, I considered biologist and then economist.” He made it as far as the letter G before choosing geology. “It was sort of unexpected,” he said. “Nobody in my family is an academic. I honestly had no idea what the science really was before I started taking classes.” It was the support of an environmental science professor that pushed Kukla to major in Earth and planetary sciences while at Northwestern University. “I really didn’t think I could be a scientist. It was so far removed from what I grew up knowing.”  

Kukla has come a long way since then. As a third year PhD candidate in Geological Sciences, Kukla studies Earth’s climate through geologic history. “When I tell people I’m a paleoclimatologist, they always ask how I could ever possibly get an inkling of what was going on with Earth’s climate in the last hundred million years.” Kukla studies chemical signatures of sedimentary rocks to learn more about how rainfall on land has changed during extremely hot and cold climate states throughout history. What motivates this research? “We’ve had liquid water on the planet for about 4 billion years, which is a ridiculous thing when you think about it. That means our climate has mostly stayed between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius for 4 billion years. Clearly Earth has a bunch of feedback systems in place that keep our planet habitable and our water cycle is a critical part of this climate machinery.”

After trying out many possible fields, Kukla knows exactly what kept him in the sciences. “It’s the feeling of being lost at sea at the fringe of what we know about our planet. You just have to find your own path forward. We’re constantly learning and discovering new things.” As a mentor in the Stanford’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE) program, Kukla is able to help young scientists learn to maneuver that feeling of being lost at sea. He’ll be taking on his third mentee this fall and recently saw his first mentee graduate. “I remember the day that she transitioned from being interested in science to loving science. It’s nice to be a part of the moment that all the pieces click together. It’s especially important for me to be a part of bringing people who have less exposure to these fields into science, and to let anyone know you don’t have to come from within science to become a scientist.”