In pursuit of global impact, geography Dean’s Medalist to study planetary surface processes of Saturn moon

By the end of his freshman year, Michael "Colin" Marvin was hooked. After taking his Introduction to Physical Geography course, he approached his professor asking if he could participate in research. 

That summer, as the youngest member of a team of ASU geography researchers, Marvin conducted aerial surveys studying wind-blown forms for 10 days from the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park to the coastal beaches of northern California. 

“On that trip, that's kind of where I got an inkling of ‘Oh, I want to go to grad school and I want to do this for a living,’’' said Marvin, who is graduating this May from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning with a Bachelor of Science in geography, a minor in mathematics and a certificate in geographic information systems. “I didn't realize that this kind of position was out there and you could make a living and have fun doing it while studying the earth.”

Marvin, who also is a Barrett, The Honors College student, says he is enamored with geography for the breadth of what the field has to offer. 

“You can study the humanities or physical sciences or computer science, it's all under the general field of geography because it's an applied science,” Marvin said. “It takes a look at both human and environmental interactions that apply to a whole bunch of things even within the realm of physical geography, which I'm interested in. You study glaciers or beaches or deserts or rivers, so there's so much going on.” 

His passion for the field and his work haven’t gone unnoticed. Marvin is a past recipient of the Barrett Global Explorers Grant for research around new ways to recognize human-caused pollution and disturbances to coastal dune systems, and was recently recognized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his undergraduate honors thesis on coastal foredune restoration in Humboldt County, California. 

Marvin is this semester’s selection by the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning for the Dean’s Medalist Award from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a recognition reserved for the highest achieving students from the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities.

“In my view, he is one of the top students in our school — not only in having a very high GPA, but in the intangibles of what he brings to the table as a student in his classes and as a member of our School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning family,” said Ron Dorn, professor of geography in the school. “There are a great many things that stand out about him that will make him a fantastic professor in the future. … He will be one of those very special teachers.” 

Following graduation, Marvin will be attending graduate school at Stanford University to study the surface processes and planetary geomorphology of Titan, a moon in the orbit of Saturn. 

Despite all his success at ASU, Marvin humbly says he’s just getting started. 

“I am very grateful to everybody at our school for letting me have these opportunities in the first place because the things that got me to this level of interest were the people in the school, the professors, the staff and the opportunities provided by ASU,” Marvin said. “I want to be able to use the relationships that I’ve made and take what I've learned here to set the foundation for the future, to do more, to discover something new, to impact people's lives and really make a difference in local communities across the world.

“Thank you for all the fun and the wonder and the discovery that I've been able to pursue and that has happened to me since I've been here. I’m going to make people proud and have an impact, that's about it for me.”

Ahead of commencement, we asked Marvin a few questions about his time at ASU:

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Answer: I came into ASU not really knowing anything at all. So, I guess changing my perspective isn't necessarily what happened. But it opened doors to what's within the field of physical geography. 

I've been able to work with the three geomorphologists in our school: Ian Walker, Ron Dorn and Mark Schmeeckle. I've been able to take classes and work with them and they have shown me the wide variety of research methods and interesting features that are happening, why they occur, the physics behind that, how we can observe them, how they change over time. It’s given me this perspective of wanting to learn a lot, and still realizing that I don't know a lot is definitely helpful because it makes me want to learn more and find out why things are happening.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Coming from Washington, I grew up in the rain and the gray. I definitely wanted to go out of state and I visited ASU and toured Barrett beforehand. I really like the campus. It seems like people were pretty personable and the financial aid package that they offered made it decently comparable and worth it to come here. So, all of those things, the people, the financial aid, the campus, and the opportunities kind of got me here and I'm super happy that I chose to go here because I've met some pretty awesome people and gone to a bunch of places and learned a lot of stuff. So, it's definitely the right choice.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I don't know if I can pick one professor. They've all been really awesome. I guess in terms of interacting with students, Dr. Dorn let me be a peer mentor for the introductory physical geography lab and I've been really lucky to be able to work that for the past three years or so. 

It's been really fun. I've had a lot of good experiences and met a lot of cool people. Working with the students, and being enthusiastic about earth sciences and all the opportunities out there, and making the topic interesting and fun and personable, and connecting with people, I think, was definitely a great lesson for me. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Pursue all the opportunities that you can even if they have very little to do with what you're interested in. The chances to meet people and to learn something and to become familiar with anything outside your realm of comfort or interest, I think, is always a good opportunity to jump on. 

You never know where those opportunities will take you or what you might learn or what you might discover about even yourself. There's a bunch out there that you don't even know exists or happens with ourselves or with the earth. So, go for it. Have a good time and learn something while doing it. 

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

A: The football stadium is nice; Palm Walk is cool. I don't really have a favorite spot — I just kind of feel good when I'm on campus.

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

A: Oh, that's a good one. I go back and forth between wealth and equality, and health care and climate change. I read a couple of interesting articles about this that talked about the timing and the impact levels of the issues we face as a society and the biggest thing that would help the most people is medical care. The most immediate impact that would help the most people in the long-term is helping people with their physical health. I think providing health care opportunities or money to get whatever people need to get done for the most amount of people would probably be the things I have to do.