IU Northwest helped Zach Hatfield discover purpose, turning his interests into a position with the United States Geological Survey
When Zach Hatfield was in high school, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to study in college.
As he considered video game programming and medical careers, one thing was a constant: his love of science. There was something very tangible about it — especially studying living things and discovering why they are the way they are — and that fascinated him.
“When I was younger, I loved gaming and thought I wanted to get into programming, but as soon as I took those classes in high school and realized it’s a lot of sitting in front of a computer screen all day, I wasn’t interested anymore,” Hatfield said. “The classes that did interest me were the ones that got me up and into a lab discovering, and it was at that point that I knew I wanted to pursue something in the sciences that would allow me to have a lab-centric career.”
When it came time to choose a college, Hatfield knew he wanted to go to Indiana University because of its top-ranked reputation. IU Northwest stood out from other IU campuses, including IU Indianapolis and Bloomington, as an affordable choice closer to home and family, allowing him to remain a part of the community he’d known and loved his whole life.
“As a smaller school, I felt it would offer me the tight-knit community and learning environment I would thrive in,” he said. “It was great having that much one-on-one time with my professors, who were all very engaging and knew their subject material well. I was able to get to know them, and they got to know me on a deeper level.”
As a first-year student, Hatfield immersed himself in all the typical classes a science buff would love — biology, organic chemistry and physics. He told his counselor he wanted to major in chemistry even though he wasn’t quite sure what kind of job that would land him after graduation.
Hatfield said the small class sizes and more face time with professors enabled them to better understand his strengths and weaknesses.
This close relationship between professor and student set Hatfield on a path to landing a career opportunity after graduation he may not have ever considered. He says it was IU Northwest’s personal and hands-on approach to education that led to a chance introduction to geology Professor, Dr. Erin Argyilan, which began a chain of events leading him to a job after graduation, one that turned out to be a perfect fit.
Research leads to an internship opportunity
During Hatfield’s junior year, his analytical chemistry lab Associate Professor, Dr. Daniel Kelly, invited some of his chemistry students to collaborate with Argyilan and her geology students on a group research project. The interdisciplinary group collected and analyzed water samples to determine ion content at Coffee Creek Park in Chesterton, Indiana.
A year later, when it came time for Hatfield to complete his senior capstone research project, Kelly once again provided an opportunity for him to work with Argyilan. It was similar to the study they worked on the year prior. This time, though, included analyzing ion content in water sources across Northwest Indiana using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).
“Dr. Kelly and I agreed that Zach had the chemistry knowledge and lab skills to learn the HPLC instrument, which was a new piece of equipment, to conduct the necessary fieldwork, analyze the results and present his findings,” Argyilan said. “I found Zach analytical, naturally curious and able to work well independently. These qualities made him stand out when it came time for me to find an intern.”
By the end of his senior year, Argyilan approached Hatfield with a summer internship opportunity she oversees through the Calumet cluster of the Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network (GLISTEN), in partnership with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the science arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“I knew Zach had the laboratory and professional skills and scientific curiosity that would lead him to enjoy and excel in the position,” Argyilan said. “Thankfully, Zach trusted me enough to take a leap of faith and accept the summer position even though he hadn’t really thought about a scientific career focused on the environment or the Great Lakes.”
From assignment to a two-year contract
Hatfield was assigned to the Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station where he worked alongside federal researchers and scientists. Throughout the summer he developed his knowledge and laboratory skills and did so well that he received a unique job offer — a two-year federal contract as an aquatic biological lab technician with the US Geological Survey lab in Chesterton.
Although the GLISTEN program studies many environmental issues affecting the health and long-term viability of the Great Lakes at various USGS stations, Hatfield’s research focus is on the overgrowth of Cladophora, a type of green algae caused in part by the proliferation of dreissenid mussels, a non-indigenous, invasive mussel species.
The presence of these mussels alters the chemistry of the lake water, creating a favorable environment for Cladophora overgrowth. Mostly a nuisance, Cladophora washes up on beaches when it dies, creating a foul-smelling bacterial mess that constantly needs to be cleaned up.
How IU Northwest helped get Hatfield where he is today
A small series of serendipitous events took Hatfield from his academic journey to the beginnings of his real-world one. He said IU Northwest’s personal and supportive learning environment and community unlocked a passion and career path he never knew existed.
“Something about my role with the USGS just clicked,” he said. “Environmental science is very tangible, hands-on and allows me to see what I’m studying. It’s more biology- and ecology-centric, which is definitely not something I was expecting to do after college.
“But the bonus in what I’m doing now is the inspiration I get from the people there and their passion for environmental restoration, feeling like I’m contributing to the betterment of society by being a part of a team dedicated to restoring the Great Lakes so future generations can appreciate them and their beauty. I look back at my college career, the personal approach to education and the caring and supportive faculty there and realize I’m pretty lucky for that experience because it helped put me where I am today.”
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