Student: Madison Heffentrager

Growing up near the coast of North Carolina, East Carolina University student Madison Heffentrager always had a passion for being outdoors. 

A native of Moyock, Heffentrager spent her childhood exploring nature. “I was always interested in mountains, volcanoes and other physical structures of the earth. Little did I know my interest could become a college major,” she said. 

A junior, Heffentrager is majoring in applied geography with a minor in biology. “When I first came to ECU, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. After taking a freshman geography course, I immediately knew that would be my major,” she said. 

Heffentrager has been an active undergraduate research assistant for both field and lab work. Working with Dr. Thad Wasklewicz, Heffentrager collects data using terrestrial laser scanners in order to analyze surface changes at various locations in eastern North Carolina.

Heffentrager has collected data on surface changes at Pea Island and Cape Cod. Last summer, she helped create a 3-D model of a MV22 Osprey plane interior using the same laser technology at Camp Lejeune. 

“Our scanners can record surface changes up to a centimeter and even a millimeter difference, so accuracy is very important,” said Heffentrager. “One of the important things I’ve learned while collecting data is that you have to be patient and persistent. Sometimes, little things like grassy patches can disturb your measurements, so you have to keep at it to get the best results. You can’t be discouraged if something goes wrong.” 

Heffentrager also works in the geography laboratories as well, entering collected data into software programs to create topographical maps of various locations in order to show their findings visually. 

“I enjoy creating the maps because it allows people to see topographic changes in their own state. Our laser technology is especially useful because it can measure surface changes rapidly and accurately. This is so important given the rate of change we’re experiencing because of global climate change. People need to be aware of what is going on,” said Heffentrager.

In 2016, Heffentrager also volunteered at the regional N.C. Science Olympiad held on ECU’s campus. Hundreds of middle and high school students across the state compete each year in hands-on and interactive events related to biology, earth science, environmental science, chemistry, physics, engineering and technology. The goal is to attract students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM degrees and careers in North Carolina. 

“Young kids, especially girls, need to be inspired by scientists,” Heffentrager said. “Just like I was inspired by my professors, I hope I was able to inspire them and make them as excited about science as I am.” 

Heffentrager has begun research for her honor’s thesis under Wasklewicz. “My thesis is on wash over fans, which are created as storm waves push over dunes and deposit sediments into a fan shape,” she said. “My project will model how these fans form and how the depositions create the actual fan shape. To do this, we are using the same laser scanners as well as cameras.” 

Following graduation, Heffentrager plans on obtaining a graduate degree that focuses on geomorphology or physical geography. “I want to continue in the research field so that I can continue to study, collect and publish data,” said Heffentrager. “I really want to be able to share my findings with the greater science community.” 

Heffentrager says that her professors continue to inspire and excite her about geography and science. “Everyone in the department is so enthusiastic and giving, and I have gained so much experience in my field,” she said. “I am confident in the experience I’ve gained at ECU, and I am ready for whatever comes next academically or professionally.” 

What is something cool about ECU that you wish you knew during your first year? There are so many activities to do at the Rec Center and at the North Rec Complex to take advantage of!

What advice do you have for other students? Take on things that challenge yourself at first because you’ll thank yourself later. 

This Pirate translates a love of the outdoors into geographical research

Written by: Sophronia Knott

Photography by: Cliff Hollis 


College: Thomas Harriot College of Arts & Sciences 

Major: Applied Geography/Biology minor

Age: 20 

Classification/Year: Junior 

Hometown: Moyock, North Carolina

Hobbies & Interests: Longboarding, swimming, hanging out at the beach, running 

Clubs & Organizations: Swim club (freshman year) 


Favorite place to eat: The Scullery

Favorite Movie: Bridesmaids 

Favorite website: Twitter

Favorite place on campus: Lounge area by Starbucks in Joyner Library 

Favorite hangout: Starbucks & Target

Favorite class: Earth Surface Systems (Dr. Thad Wasklewicz)

Favorite TV show: Modern Family

Favorite band/musician: Drake


Professor who influenced you the most: Dr. Thad Wasklewicz 

The one thing you cannot live without: Coffee 

Dream Job: Working with the United States Geological Survey

Role model: Kailey Adams, a grad student in geography 

Your words to live by: Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, because that’s where you’ll experience the most growth.