Grad learned to value herself as a researcher, student and person while at ASU


Karin Valentine

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Sarah Dillon, who will be receiving her master’s degree in geological sciences this May from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, originally chose ASU for graduate school because of an interest in igneous petrology (rocks that are formed from magma).

Her focus changed, however, when her adviser, School of Earth and Space Exploration Professor Rick Hervig, offered her a position to work in ASU’s Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (SIMS) lab, a National Science Foundation-funded facility. Dillon jumped at the opportunity to work on an analytical instrument, which had been a goal of hers.

“Sarah came to ASU expecting to study igneous petrology and high-pressure phases and perhaps conduct some experiments. Instead she was shunted into a basement lab to examine the minutiae of sputtered ion formation,” said Hervig, SIMS facility director. “However, her work could indeed have relevance to igneous petrology and high-pressure phases, and so things may have worked out closer to her original goals than she might have thought.”

Dillon says her "aha" moment happened about six months into her degree program when she personally felt she had mastered the SIMS instrument. “It was at this time I knew that no matter what I ended up doing after completing my master's, I wanted to work with or on a SIMS instrument,” she said.

At first, Dillon didn’t feel smart enough or like she deserved the position she was offered. “I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome,” she said.

But the further she got into her degree research, the more she learned to appreciate her work and realized her value as a researcher, a student and a person. “While at ASU, I learned to love myself and appreciate my achievements,” she said.

When asked about which faculty influenced her the most, Dillon says professors Rick Hervig of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Peter Williams of the School of Molecular Sciences both taught her incredibly important lessons: Always question your data, never treat an instrument like a "black box" (in other words, beyond just output, it’s important to learn how an instrument works, how the data is collected and how to interpret the results) and always have fun whenever possible.

“Because of her interactions at ASU with students, scientists and engineers as a research assistant with the SIMS lab, Sarah obtained a unique education,” Hervig said. “Her scientific ability to detect that which is anomalous, combined with her openness to exploring new horizons, will contribute greatly to her success.

After graduation, Dillon will be starting a job as a surface scientist at Micron Technology, a semiconductor manufacturer in Boise, Idaho, crossing a boundary from scientific research into materials production and research and development. She’ll be moving to Idaho with her soon-to-be husband and cat to start a new and exciting chapter in their lives.

Question: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

Answer: To those still in school, I'd say trust your gut, believe in yourself no matter what and never listen to those nasty thoughts in your head that make you doubt yourself. You're at ASU because you're amazing, so never doubt yourself!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is the ASU SIMS lab (located in the Bateman Physical Sciences Building F-Wing), or as I refer to it, "my cave.” I've spent most of my time at ASU in the lab and I do everything there. I love the spot because I'm surrounded by amazingly sweet, smart and inspirational people and I get to meet new people almost every day.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I'd want to tackle air pollution. I think it IS possible to clean our atmosphere and it's important for the future of our planet and the human race. Although I don't know how I'd do it, I'd love to be given the opportunity to try.