Graduate Opportunities

Graduate opportunities at Northern Arizona University

PhD Student Opportunity in Remote Sensing of Alluvial Sandbar Dynamics in Grand Canyon

Funding is available for a PhD student to study alluvial sandbar dynamics on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The research objective is to better understand the highly localized nature of eddy sandbar responses to hydrologic regime, at the event scale (such as during floods) as well as longer-term morphodynamics. The project will make use of an extensive data set from 40 autonomously operating digital camera systems ('remote cameras') which have been providing olique high-resolution color imagery ( up to 12 times per day, for several years (at some sites, going back to 2008). This wealth of data can be used to explore sandbar responses to flows at a range of timescales (from hours to years) as well as other important aspects of the river corridor such as vegetation encroachment and erosional processes. Additional data sets include (annual or sub-annual) ground-based topographic surveys, and other remote sensing data sets derived from aerial imagery (collected in 2005, 2009, and 2013).

The PhD funding will include full tuition, stipend, and health insurance. The student will be based at the Remote Sensing and Geoinformatics Lab (, advised by Dr. Sankey, School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, and Informatics and Computing Program, Northern Arizona University. The student will also work closely with USGS GCMRC (Grand Canyon Moinoting Research Center; research scientists - specifically Dr. Daniel Buscombe, Dr. Paul Grams, and Dr. Erich Mueller - and a large group of academic and government researchers working in the Grand Canyon and throughout the Colorado River Basin. The project will involve georectification of oblique imagery into planform imagery using a network of surveyed ground control points at each site. The student will contribute to the development of automated or semi-automated algorithms for the segmentation of sandbars from georectified images, and the continuing development of a novel approach developed at GCMRC to extract 3D topographic data from imagery, thus potentially providing a means to estimate sandbar volumes. 

The ideal candidate should have, or is keen to develop, skills in a high-level programming language such as Matlab/Python/R/IDL; an interest in image processing/photogrammetry and/or remote sensing; a background in geomorphology, geology, hydrology, engineering, computer science or related discipline. Although this is designed as a PhD position, qualified applicants seeking a M.S. degree may be considered. Candidates interested in the position should contact Dr. Sankey at 


Metamorphism and Tectonics in Orogenic Belts

We invite applications from prospective students interested in conducting research on metamorphic rocks in ancient orogenic belts.  Our current project is to work in the Funeral Mountains in Death Valley National Park.  In particular, we hypothesize a protracted history of fault reactivation, and propose that this may be a common phenomenon in western U.S. orogenic belts. Rocks in the Funeral Mountains are ideal for testing this hypothesis due to excellent exposures and abundant rocks suitable for study.  In collaboration with U.N.L.V., we are employing a multi-faceted approach to evaluate the hypothesis of tectonic reactivation through detailed studies along the metamorphic and strain gradient that includes: (1) field mapping and structural analysis, (2) petrographic, microstructural, and kinematic analyses aided by Electron Backscatter Diffraction analysis of quartz-rich rocks, (3) applying petrochronology (Laser Ablation Split Stream Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry) to date accessory minerals (metamorphic titanite, monazite, xenotime, and zircon overgrowths) and Lu-Hf dating of garnet in garnet amphibolites, and (4) determining the metamorphic conditions and prograde pressure-temperature paths to evaluate the prograde burial history, possible grade discordances across major shear zones, and the regional thrust-induced paleodip. Recognition of tectonic reactivation has important implications for understanding the older Jurassic and Cretaceous history of the Sevier-Laramide orogen, the magnitude and distribution of contraction and extension that occurred during orogenesis, and the episodic nature of post-orogenic extension.

Degree options include:

MS Geology

PhD Earth Sciences & Environmental Sustainability, Earth and Planetary Systems Emphasis

The Dust-Drought Nexus in the Four Corners Region

We invite applications for prospective Ph.D. students interested in conducting research on how dust and drought interact as part of this newly-funded 5-year project.

Drought and dust in southwestern US are strongly linked, and the Colorado Plateau is a model laboratory for understanding their interaction in a changing climate. Drought kills plants, increasing dust in the atmosphere, inhibiting convection, exacerbating and prolonging drought. Dust accumulation on snow accelerates snowmelt, altering the water budget. Dust transports nutrients and microorganisms, affecting plant growth and disease. These impacts influence air quality and water security for the region, and food security for the nation. Despite this, dust-drought-climate interactions have received little attention.

Interested students should apply to the PhD Earth Sciences & Environmental Sustainability – Climate and Environmental Change emphasis.

Paleoclimate Informatics

We invite applications for prospective graduate students interested in researching and developing paleoclimate infrastructure. Paleoclimatology is a highly collaborative and increasing data-driven science; however the cyberinfrastructure and informatics framework for paleoclimatic research is just beginning to be developed. Our lab is leading the development of this new discipline, and we seek prospective graduate students with background and/or strong interest in both paleoclimate and data science to contribute to ongoing funded research.

Students in this research area will pursue a graduate degree (MS or PhD) through the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, and will also be involved in research and coursework through the newly formed School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Security.

Arctic Glacial Lakes, Catchments and Climate Linkages

We invite applications from prospective graduate students to join our NSF-funded project focusing on glacial-lacustrine sedimentation to investigate past and future climate change. This interdisciplinary project is aimed at understanding the major processes that govern sedimentation in Arctic lakes in glaciated catchments. New glacier, hydrology, limnology, and sediment modern-process studies will provide the input data to calibrate and test process-based earth system models. Students will be involved in Arctic fieldwork, where they will gain a more comprehensive understanding of how glaciers, hydrology, and lakes relate to the Arctic system. Please contact Darrell Kaufman or Nick McKay for more information, or visit the project website:

Degree options include:

               • MS Geology

               • MS Environmental Sciences & Policy – Paleoenvironments emphasis

               • PhD Earth Sciences & Environmental Sustainability – Climate and Environmental Change emphasis

Sedimentary records of annual- to millennial-scale Holocene climate in southern Alaska

Applications are invited for graduate students to study Holocene climatic variability in southern Alaska based on proxy climate evidence from lake sediments. Field sites include both glacial-fed and non-glacial lakes from which sediments can be analyzed for a variety of biological and physical properties and used to infer hydroclimatic variability on time scales ranging from annual to millennial. Volcanic ash layers and annually laminated sediment provide the basis for precise geochronology.  These new records will build on a strong regional network of proxy proxy climate records from tree rings glacier ice and other sources to improve the understanding of how shifts in the mean state of climate during the Holocene were associated with changes in north Pacific climate variability. Contact Darrell Kaufman for more information.

 Degree options include:

               • MS Geology

               • MS Environmental Sciences & Policy – Paleoenvironments emphasis

               • PhD Earth Sciences & Environmental Sustainability – Climate and Environmental Change emphasis

USGS AstroGeology (Flagstaff) - NAU project:  Flynn Creek crater project

 ***  Two years of funding for fall 2015 to Spring/summer 2017

Flynn Creek crater is a 3.8 km diameter, 360 million year old impact structure located in north central Tennessee. The impactor that produced the crater likely struck a shallow sea, punching a flat hole into underlying Ordovician marine limestones, with the crater being filled with black Devonian muds that underwent lithification to become the Chattanooga Shale. Between 1967 and 1979, Dr. David Roddy of the USGS conducted a drilling program at Flynn Creek crater. The drilling program produced more than 3.8 km of nearly continuous core from 18 separate bore holes. These samples are now contained in 2,600 standard core storage boxes archived at the USGS in Flagstaff, Arizona. Using these cores, previous studies have laid the groundwork for understanding this unique impact structure. Since those initial studies, new techniques and technological advancements have made it possible to revisit this crater and the drill core collection such we can fill gaps in the knowledge base and further define the spectrum of marine impact craters. The overarching goal of this three year project is to first document and characterize the drill cores using a combination of bulk rock and microbeam analyses, which in turn will be used to inform and constrain numerical models of the impact event. This intentionally broad approach will use iterations between complementary techniques to address multiple, critical issues regarding the effects of carbonate melting, shock deformation, and impact-induced hydrothermal activity within a well-document marine impact crater. 

Contact for more information:  

Project details:  Dr. Justin J. Hagerty

U.S. Geological Survey

Office Phone: (928) 556-7173

SESES Graduate School Program Inquiries, please contact Amy Wolkwinsky, Graduate Program Coordinator