KU News Release

May 4, 2010
Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853

Graduation stories: Twin sisters earn dual doctoral degrees in geology

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LAWRENCE — Sylvia Suarez knew her twin daughters’ dinosaur hunts might be more than a phase when their grade-school teacher quietly informed her that the girls needed to halt digging holes in the school playground.

On May 16, Celina and Marina Suarez, daughters of Sylvia and Arturo Suarez of San Antonio, are graduating with doctorates in geology from the University of Kansas. They are the first in their family to earn doctoral degrees.

Their parents, both educators — Sylvia a retired elementary teacher and Arturo superintendent of a charter school — noted that they had clues early of the twins’ passion for science. Arturo frequently found his shop tools missing. The twins were using them to dig in the family’s backyard. When the backyard produced nothing, the twins moved on to other sites, eventually learning playgrounds were off limits.

Celina and Marina Suarez (Photo by Chuck France/University Relations)

Their dinosaur hunts began with their mom taking them “to museums where I first encountered dinosaurs and to the zoo and the botanical center where I became interested in plants and animals and their relationships,” Marina said. They also hiked with their parents, “where there were plenty of good south Texas Cretaceous rocks and fossils.”

Marina, two minutes younger than her twin, completed her doctoral degree in fall 2009.

She is the Morten K. and Jane Blaustein Post-doctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins University in the earth and planetary sciences department. In fall 2011, Marina will return to San Antonio to begin a tenure track position as an assistant professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

Celina, too, remembered childhood day trips as an early influence in her love of science but added, “In the second grade, we did a dinosaur section and I never really grew out of the ‘I want to be a paleontologist phase.’ Now, I still use fossils including dinosaurs in my research, but I examine the chemical make-up of the bones and teeth to tell me about the past environment, climate and habits of the animals.”

After graduation, Celina plans to apply for a National Science Foundation fellowship and has applied for a postdoctoral position to research the geochemistry of fossil vertebrates at Boise State University in Idaho. Her dissertation examined the chemical composition of dinosaur bones and teeth to reconstruct climatic conditions that led to dinosaur evolution and extinction. In 2008, Celina received the Most Outstanding Graduate Oral Presentation award in the Geosciences from the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

Marina specializes in the stable isotopic composition of the Earth’s layers. Her dissertation examined the climate and hydrology of the Cretaceous period. “I want to understand how the earth functioned in the past to help us understand how it will function in the future.”

Despite a mutual dislike of chemistry, both are geochemists. Celina said, “I hate chemistry, or did as an undergraduate.” Marina agreed. Yet as they settled into research for their master’s degrees at Temple University in Philadelphia, both began to find chemistry interesting and never looked back.

They selected KU for doctoral study after attending a professional geology convention and meeting Luis Gonzalez, chair of KU’s geology department. Gonzalez specializes in paleo-climate research, an area that fit their academic interests. KU’s geology department graduate programs in sedimentology/stratigraphy and paleontology are ranked among the top 10 in the nation. With Gonzalez’s encouragement, the twins packed their rock collections and computers to come to Kansas.

It is happenstance, the twins say, that they have followed similar career paths from high school through college to graduate school. The decision to go to Temple was difficult primarily because of NFL rivalries between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. The twins are passionate Cowboy fans.

Their twin decisions on graduate schools, “just kind of happened,” Marina said. “I had no desire consciously to choose a different school. We both had the same attributes in mind with respect to what we wanted for grad school.”

Celina added, “We do want to stay close professionally. Our individual expertise complements each other well, and we obviously work well together.”

This spring marked the first long-term separation the twins had experienced since kindergarten. They found themselves on the phone and e-mailing daily. “It wasn’t easy,” Celina said.

As youngsters, they dressed in twin outfits but as young professionals, they aren’t interested in looking alike, although they are mirror twins — Celina is right-handed; Marina, left-handed.

The twins are the oldest of four daughters, the youngest of whom, a mathematician, died from injuries suffered when she was hit by a car while training for a cross-country team at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin. Their sister Bettina has a master’s degree in psychology and works for U.S. Justice Department in Dallas. The twins are graduates of John Marshall High School in San Antonio.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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