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Rising Runner Katie O'Sullivan explores the earth and the skies

Katie O'Sullivan

Katie O'Sullivan atop Cloud's Rest in Yosemite National Park in 2016.

Katie O'Sullivan is one of four 2018 Rising Runners, CSUB alumni of the last 10 years being recognized for their exceptional work post-graduation. 

How does the daughter of a single mom and waitress, and the first in her family to go to college, end up being part of a team that proposes where the United States should next land on the moon?

Hard work, ambition and not a little bit of risk-taking.

It’s the life story of 34-year-old Katie O’Sullivan, a 2007 CSUB geology grad and now a lecturer at her alma mater. In between she earned a doctorate at Notre Dame, interned at NASA and taught English in France.

A Highland High grad, Katie started out at CSUB studying physics but liked the outdoors and so shifted to geology. She worked up to three jobs, mostly waitressing and catering, while going to school.

“I graduated debt-free, which is not something many students can say today,” she said.

While at CSUB Katie participated in research with Professor Rob Negrini analyzing core samples from different areas of what was Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater lake in the western U.S., to determine how many critters were living there and how deep the waters went.

After graduation she worked for Occidental Petroleum correcting and adding to oil well data, “nitty gritty work nobody wanted to do” but which helped geologists drill better wells.

Graduate school sounded like a good idea and since she had a job and nothing to lose, Katie applied to a dozen or so “dream” schools such as MIT, Cal Tech, the University of Hawaii and Notre Dame.

“I got rejection letter after rejection letter but then got one acceptance letter, and that was awesome,” she recalled.

Notre Dame was the school that wanted her, in large part based on recommendation letters highlighting her enthusiasm. There she got to work on samples astronauts brought back from Apollo 12, the second manned mission to the moon.

Katie helped answer the question of what could be learned from the “priceless samples” without destroying them. The technique involved placing a very thin slice of rock onto a slide and blasting it with a laser, sending tiny pieces to a machine that analyzed their chemistry.

She remembers once having to drive moon rocks from Indiana to a lab in Missouri.

“I called my mom and said, ‘I have priceless national treasures in my car,’” Katie remembered. “’My mom said, ‘Get off the phone!’”

In 2008, the summer of her first year in graduate school, she interned at NASA. President George W. Bush had announced the United States was going back to the moon and Katie and her colleagues looked at potential landing sites.

Her favorite site was on the back side of the moon, in a crater with different volcanoes that could provide samples from the moon’s interior. The team presented findings to NASA but the effort fizzled when President Barack Obama scrapped the space agency’s manned moon mission.

After earning her doctorate in 2013, Katie was “sick of school and thinking so hard” and went to France to teach English for a year. She eventually got homesick, returned to Bakersfield, and was offered a teaching position at CSUB.

“I did it on a whim and ended up loving it,” Katie said. “It’s so rewarding. The students come in and say, ‘I never looked at the Earth this way until I took your class.’”

She teaches planetary geology, geo chemistry and physical geology. For the latter she takes students – many of whom have never camped – on a multi-day field trip to the desert.

Outside of work Katie speaks to local high schoolers about why they should go to college, saying it has given her a life and career she didn’t know she could love so much.

“Even though my mom was a waitress and I was a waitress, I tried it, I took a chance, and it worked out well for me,” Katie said.


Now in its fourth year, the Rising Runner program recognizes CSUB alumni of the last 10 years excelling in their work and giving back to their community.

In consultation with faculty, the dean from each of the university’s four schools selects a Rising Runner. Rising Runners come back to campus to participate in an awards ceremony and panel discussion where current students can ask them questions about how they got where they are today.

This year's event will be held from noon to 1 p.m. Feb. 23 in the CSUB Stockdale Room.