How a Numberphile with a Love of the Outdoors Mapped Her Degree Plan

When she began her Freshman year in 2018, Daphne Smith did not know that she wanted to study geology. In fact, she was not aware that either geology or, more specifically, hydrogeology—a field that researches the distribution and movement of water below the Earth’s surface—were possibilities. But like so many undergraduates who stumble into a new field by walking into the classroom, Smith discovered her new degree plan by taking Afu Lin‘s introduction to physical geology.

Daphne Smith At Graduation 840x600 Acf Cropped
Daphne Smith a month before graduating from UT Austin in 2022 Credit: Kristin Phillips

“I changed my major at the end of my freshman year, after taking the introductory class” said Smith. “Pretty much on a whim, I chose hydrogeology because I thought that this option had the most math… and I love math and coding!”

Jump to the end of her four years at UT Austin, Smith is graduating this spring with a BS (Honors) in the Hydrogeology Option from the Department of Geological Sciences as well as with a Computational Science and Engineering Certificate from the Oden Institute. But she is not leaving Austin: Smith has been accepted to the Masters program in the department!

“Daphne exhibits a penchant to follow her passion in learning and exploration, a quality I encourage all students to pursue,” said Marcus Gary, an adjunct assistant professor in the department. “My class in karst hydrogeology is one that gets us out in the environment, often camping, kayaking, caving, and spending time exploring and studying water in the Texas Hill Country. It was great to see Daphne thrive in that setting, and inspiring to see her develop strong scientific skills in the world she loves.”

Daphne In Field
Daphne Smith at the White Family Research Center Credit: Jackson School of Geosciences

Smith grew up in Magnolia, Texas, born into a family that introduced her to one of her primary interests: hiking and camping in the outdoors. This interest has carried through into extracurricular actives while in college. Initially a member of UT’s choir—she’s lent her alto to singing since seventh grade—the pandemic forced Smith to look for safe ways to participate that also luckily brought her outside. After exploring running, she discovered a new community while racing as part of two cycling teams, UT Cycling and ATX Sirens.

“Austin has a great cycling scene with a very supportive community,” said Smith. “Now I spend every moment of my free time outside, between exercising and research.”

Research began in the summer after her junior year. Smith participated in her first in-person group experience in a long time as part of the department’s intensive Hydrogeology Field Methods class. Led by faculty members Daniella Rempe and Ashley Matheny, the three-week field experience took place at the White Family Research Center in the Hill Country and at Hornsby Bend in Austin.

Smith was hooked by field research. Since the class, she has been working with Rempe to understand how plants access deep water stores in rock and how this impacts groundwater recharge in the Hill Country. Every other week, she spends a day at the White Center, taking measurements of the upper soil and monitoring wells on a hill top. Smith loves the remote and peaceful location and is now helping Rempe analyze data.

“Daphne is exceptionally well prepared for graduate research,” said Rempe. “Her incredible dataset from her work at the White Family Outdoor Learning Center is a testament to her fearlessness, attention to detail, and ability to learn new skills. I am thrilled that she has decided to pursue graduate research with our group. The sky is the limit for Daphne.”

Written by Kristin Phillips, Department of Geological Sciences