Sean Thatcher outside the College of Staten Island Library.

CUNY MATTERS – On a geology class field trip in 2014, two College of Staten Island students – 2015 Goldwater Scholarship winner Sean Thatcher and classmate Victoria Rivelli – discovered something geologically new about the exhaustively studied Palisades cliffs, along the west flank of the Hudson River.

Examining an outcrop of sedimentary rock that had been newly exposed at a construction site in North Bergen, N.J., they spotted sedimentary structures in the sandstone that shouldn’t have been there. And when they and lecturer Jane Alexander, the sedimentology teacher, presented their findings at a Geological Society of America conference, they rocked the place.

“We’re still analyzing rock samples that we took back to the lab to determine chemical variations associated with the Palisades Sill intrusion,” he says, referring to the formal name of the igneous rock that, as molten lava, flowed into fissures in the earlier sedimentary rocks. (The only reason the class visited that site (a parking lot for a new bank) was that it was wheelchair-accessible. That’s a must for Thatcher, who became quadriplegic after fracturing his neck in a diving accident six years ago, when he was 18.)

“I don’t let the wheelchair slow me down,” Thatcher says. “I refuse to stop living. I like to be productive and get things done. I think that using a wheelchair has actually enhanced my ability to think outside the box.”

Thatcher expects to graduate in 2017 from CSI’s selective Verrazano School honors program with a major in biology and a minor in geology. He says he took the geology class to “get a better understanding of the environment and its complex interactions.”

In his Goldwater application, he proposed a research project that would help him continue developing expertise in protecting and enhancing coastal ecosystems, which are under attack by human activity and climate change. His proposal, studying how fertilizer affects the growth rates of dune grass, would take place in CSI’s greenhouse.

Thatcher will spend this summer at the CUNY Graduate Center on a CUNY Pipeline Fellowship, which supports students who intend to earn Ph.D.s and teach in their fields at the university level. His pipeline project involves redeveloping the coastal ecosystem with sand dunes, coastal wetlands and other natural approaches to protect human communities from future storm surges, like those that swept across Staten Island during Hurricane Sandy.

“As a society, we need to redevelop coastal areas to better prepare for rising sea levels,” he says. He prefers taking the natural approach, rather than investing in mammoth barriers that have been proposed to protect New York’s harbor. While there may be a role for sea walls, he prefers “natural structures that cost little for humans to build, but support valuable biodiversity. What’s better to protect homes than green space?”

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, established by Congress, is the premier federally funded undergraduate scholarship that supports students who are headed toward doctoral study in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering. The one- and two-year scholarships cover tuition, fees, books and room and board up to $7,500 a year.