2016 Class Acts

Up to the Challenge

For Molly Chaney, college is an adventure

Molly Chaney

Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos


The second semester of her first year, Arts & Sciences student Molly Chaney took Hydrology, a 400-level class designed for juniors, seniors and graduate students taught by Bob Criss, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The pre-reqs were calc two, calc three, physics one and two, differential equations, and matrix algebra, none of which I had taken. Zero,” Chaney said.

“So I talked to Bob about it, saying I was worried I didn’t have the computation skills.

“And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, are you good at math?’

She is good at math (graduating with a geophysics major and math minor), but still she was hesitant, because, as she puts it, the question is a broad one.

“But after I went to the first lecture, ‘I thought to myself, there’s no way I can’t take this class. I have to take it,’” Chaney said. “It was a struggle. It was probably the hardest class I’ve taken at WashU but it was well worth it.”

Chaney was interested in hydrology because she had taken Criss’s introductory class and heard his legendary take on the (mis-)management of the Mississippi River.

Criss wasn’t worried about her. “She smoked everybody in my introductory class and if I remember correctly, she smoked everybody in Hydrology, too,” he said.

For Chaney college was an adventure. She took hard classes; she took a heavy load; she got experience in the lab and the field as well as in the classroom; and she went to office hours, sought her professors’ advice and spent hours chatting with them.

The summer after her sophomore year, she worked in the lab of Phil Skemer, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences, looking at the microstructure of tiny samples of partially molten basalts to understand how the melt organizes itself in three dimensions.

“It was a great experience,” she said.

“Molly is a tenacious student, especially in the face of challenging, esoteric topics,” Skemer said. “I’ve never met another student so eager to pore through a 40-year-old textbook on an obscure subfield of image analysis to extract new tools to apply in her research.”

The spring of her junior year, she took the geologic field camp through Frontiers Abroad, an earth and environmental science abroad program run by the University of Canterbury in Christ Church, New Zealand. Together with two dozen other students, she traveled around New Zealand learning how to map and read the geology.

“During the field camp we actually got to hike up Mount Doom [from the Lord of the Rings films],” she said, “which is called Ngauruhoe in the real world but everyone was just ‘Oh my gosh, Mount Doom.’ It was a sidetrip on a 10-hour hike called the Tongariro alpine crossing that was truly awesome.”

Molly Chaney mapping sedimentary beds on New Zealand’s South Island.

Molly Chaney mapping sedimentary beds on New Zealand’s South Island.
Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos

Chaney said that during her semester abroad, she missed her heavy workload at WashU. “By the end of the semester, I was getting really antsy because I didn’t have enough work to do. It was great because I had time to relax, which was probably much needed, but by the end of it — Phil can confirm this — I was emailing, ‘I’m ready to come back and get to work and start studying for the GRE and all of that.’”

Chaney gets much of her extraordinary work ethic from her parents. Chaney’s father is a cardiac anesthesiologist and her mother is an emergency room doctor.

“[My mom] and I both work well under pressure. We’re not happy unless we’re very, very busy,” she said. Next year, Chaney will be keeping busy at Princeton University as a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, continuing her collegiate adventure.


by Diana Lutz

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