Student's honors thesis features fossils found in North Carolina

For high-achieving students like Jonathan Mitchell, Appalachian's Heltzer Honors Program offers the perfect academic environment—at an affordable price.

"The Heltzer Honors Program offers incentives and opportunities that may otherwise go unnoticed," said Mitchell, a geology student recently accepted into the University of Chicago's Ph.D. program.

"If you plan to be a leader in your field, you don't want just a degree—you want a degree with honors," explains Dr. Leslie Sargent Jones, the program's director. "All students at Appalachian get a great education, but the Heltzer Honors Program is tailored for students who plan to go to graduate or professional school and who want to be leaders in their field. We'll launch them to where they're going next."

Appalachian has offered honors courses to its most academically motivated students for more than 35 years. Admission to the Heltzer Honors Program is competitive and by application only for students in the top 5 to 10 percent of their graduating high school class. Each year about 225 students are enrolled.

What distinguishes the honors experience at Appalachian?

  • intense and highly interactive classes led by full-time faculty
  • a student-to-faculty ratio of 13-to-1
  • a residential community where like-minded students can live, learn and excel together
  • special, one-on-one advising known as "academic mentoring"
  • leadership development activities
  • support for scholarly work that prepares students for graduate or professional school
  • a required study or service-learning abroad experience
  • a senior thesis/project

Students in the program's Fall 2009 freshman class had an average SAT score of 1307. The most popular majors of honors students are psychology, biology, music and political science.

Jonathan Mitchell '10

When Jonathan Mitchell began sifting through the waters of a quarry pond near Raleigh for possible fossils, he had no idea what he would encounter.

Under the direction of Dr. Andy Heckert in the Department of Geology, Mitchell first separated rocks from bones—and after finding teeth and bones from different mammals and birds, he came across a 220-million-year-old deposit of an early dinosaur, mammal and crocodile relative.

Mitchell, an honors student in Appalachian State University's Heltzer Honors Program, thought this would be an interesting topic to further examine for his honors thesis.

Through fieldwork and lab analysis, Mitchell learned that the creature he found could be a distant relative to alligators and snakes. This creature had blade-like teeth with serrations and two venom canals in every tooth in its mouth.

Mitchell also has uncovered teeth from the Revueltosaurus, a dinosaur-like creature that has never been known to exist on the East Coast of North America, and the Uatchitodon, a venomous creature only recognized from its venomous teeth.

"Paleontology is fascinating because it really is the act of exploring another world. You go out into the desert and you have to know where to find the animals you're looking for, and the only way to know how to find them is to know whether the rocks you're looking at are from ancient beaches, lakes, rivers or bogs and to know how old the rocks are. It's just exciting and adventurous," said Mitchell, a geology major with a concentration in paleontology.

Known on campus for wearing a signature Indiana Jones-style hat, Mitchell was recently accepted into University of Chicago's Ph.D. program with a full tuition waiver. "Having the note on my resume that I was a member of the Heltzer Honors Program undoubtedly helped!" said the May 2010 graduate.

"Appalachian has a stellar geology department, and a very undergraduate-research-oriented atmosphere that one cannot get at larger schools," he said.

Upon completing his Ph.D., Mitchell would like to combine his passion for paleontology, anatomy and teaching.

"Paleontology itself is a pretty esoteric subject. Paleontologists are all anatomical experts and most major medical schools like Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale and the New York School of Osteopathology have large numbers of paleontologists working for them, teaching human anatomy to future doctors." he said.

Catherine Wood '10

Mount Airy, N.C.
Management major

When senior Catherine Wood was accepted into the Heltzer Honors Program, she was excited about the idea of an intellectually stimulating college experience. "With the mix of intellect, community and academia, what more could you ask for? I was able to establish a community with the students and professors, and was able to engage in conversation-type curriculum instead of only being lectured at. It's a privilege of being more mature and more engaged," she said. Wood is a management major with a minor in business and dance. "The skills you develop through the honors curriculum will help you, and keep you one step ahead of your peers, for the rest of your life," said Wood. Her honors thesis examined the modern glass ceiling for women in corporate America.

Stephanie Smith '10

Grover, N.C.
Psychology major

"I love the special topics that are taught in the honors classes that you cannot find anywhere else. They make the classes much more interesting than a regular lecture class," said senior Stephanie Smith. "The classes are tailored to fit the learning style of an honors student. You discuss readings and participate; it's more hands on," she said. Smith is a psychology major with a minor in sociology. For her honors thesis topic, Smith looked at regret in hypothetical and real life situations and its relation to gender. In the future, she hopes to work at a university as a researcher and professor.

Clary Franko '10

Floyd, Va.
Geography major

Clary Franko came to Appalachian on an honors scholarship. "I was attracted to the mountain town and immediately loved the relaxed and genuine community here," Franko said. She is a geography major with a certificate in GIS (geographic information systems) and minors in biology and sustainable development. For her honors thesis, Franko researched a new location for the Watauga County Farmers Market. The Heltzer Honors Program "has provided me with extra guidance and support throughout my four years, pushed me to go further with my studies, and allowed for more in depth discussion of topics through selected honors classes," Franko said.