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New BYU grad pursuing Ph.D. after a summer stop in Denali

While at BYU, Hannah Bonner led the BYU Mars Rover science team, published a book with maps of prehistoric Utah, studied landslide risks near the Three Gorges Dam in China and researched toxic algae blooms in Utah Lake.

Bonner’s experiences illustrate why BYU ranks fifth in the country for graduates who go on to earn a Ph.D. With all she has done as an undergraduate, it is no wonder that graduate programs across the nation were competing for her to enroll. Ultimately, Bonner decided to pursue a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Colorado Boulder. But first she will squeeze in a summer working as a geoscientist in Denali National Park. 

Photo by Jaren Wilkey

“She will look for opportunities and then use them to her advantage without fear,” said geology professor Jani Radebaugh, who has watched Bonner succeed since day one. “From China to Capitol Reef National Park, there are no barriers to her success. She looks beyond whatever is the norm and digs in deeper to find these interesting opportunities.”

For starters, Bonner found opportunities to get involved with other students on campus. Each year, BYU students participate in the University Mars Rover competition. Last year, Bonner was the science team lead on the project. Under her leadership, the science team obtained the first perfect score by a BYU Mars rover team.

“It was thrilling to take first place because our team had been working so hard all semester long,” Bonner said.

250 million years ago, Utah was the West Coast and experienced a Bahamas-like climate.
250 million years ago, Utah was the West Coast and experienced a Bahamas-like climate.

Bonner’s work with professors has been equally impressive. For the past two years, she has collaborated with geology professor Tom Morris to co-author Landscapes of Utah’s Geological Past, a book about paleogeography in Utah. Bonner created nine different photorealistic satellite maps of what Utah would have looked like millions of years ago. She developed a new technique for creating these maps, which other universities and national parks are beginning to use.

“Working with Hannah on this book was a joy. She has a spectacular work ethic, a sharp brain and she is creative in her presentations,” said Morris. “She really does have a lot of things going for her, and I know she is on track for great successes.”

Last summer, Bonner traveled to China with the National Science Foundation to do landslide research along the Yangtze River, home of the Three Gorges Dam. Because of this large hydroelectric gravity dam, there is major landslide potential along the steep banks of the river. Bonner and a group of eight students from across the country went to work on this issue through LiDAR, GPS and TST to model landslide movement. They collaborated directly with local Chinese officials to find solutions.

“We weren’t just doing research for the sake of doing research, but we were coming together to save lives,” said Bonner. “Spending the summer in China working on this project was definitely a defining moment in my undergraduate program.”

This year, Bonner has continued her work with professors, doing research with geological sciences professor Greg Carling. They have been studying the phosphorus release in Utah Lake and how it’s toxic algal blooms.

“As I look back on my undergrad, it’s really just with immense gratitude and awe for the goodness of BYU and the goodness of the people here,” said Bonner. “There’s something unique about being a scientist at BYU. So many people see science and religion at odds with each other, but my education at BYU has helped me see how science and religion mesh beautifully. I have such a greater appreciation for the intricacy of the world we live in.”