Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Professor helps student see underground

It’s like the old joke: Someone is “outstanding” in his field.

But really, Larry Conyers is often out standing in a field, trying to figure out what’s underneath him. It seems fair to say Conyers, a University of Denver anthropology professor, is outstanding in his field. He’s written three books and countless articles on ground-penetrating radar (GPR), a way to collect data about what’s lurking beneath our feet. He’s been doing GPR for about 25 years now, about as long as the science has been available.

And Conyers usually finds whatever it is: archeological treasures, oil and gas, water and even human remains.

That was the case a few weeks ago when Conyers took six DU students to Mead, Colo., to explore a cemetery filled with early pioneers from the 1860s.

The cemetery served as a perfect (albeit macabre) hands-on classroom where students spent a day gathering data with GPR tools and technology and then returned to the classroom and spent a week transforming it all into three-dimensional images. They found about 200 graves, a few of which were of children believed to be from migrant workers in the 1930s.

As much as Conyers likes fiddling with GPR, he’s also developed a penchant for sharing his know-how — much to the amusement and appreciation of students he’s taken with him to stand out in many, many fields. He doesn’t have an official GPR class for DU students but occasionally gathers interested students for an impromptu “GPR club.”

One of those former club members, Jennie Sturm (BA ’04, MA ’06, anthropology), has fond memories of hovering over GPR gizmos.

“I remember being kind of thrown into my first field survey and was forced to essentially sink or swim,” Sturm says. “But that’s a really valuable way to learn something, and especially something like GPR, where so much has to be gained through hands-on experience and not just reading a book.”

Sturm, who says she opted to stay at DU for grad school so she could keep working with Conyers, says she “fell in love” with GPR as an undergrad because it combined science, history and culture.

“And Larry gave me every opportunity to learn and grow in the field,” Sturm says. “To put it simply, everything Larry taught me has directly translated into my career.”

After DU, Sturm started a company for geophysical consulting (using GPR) for archaeology, historic preservation, environmental and geological studies. She’s now in her fourth year running the business.

“Larry has a passion for this field that’s contagious, and anything I accomplish in my career is only possible because I’m standing on the shoulders of a giant,” Sturm says. “I’m not trying to sound hokey … I am truly trying to acknowledge that Larry has been the single most important person in helping me get to where I am today, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier.”

Conyers says it’s “definitely gratifying” to see his students “go on and do great things” with what they’ve learned. 

Conyers adds, “DU is a hands-on school and I like to think that gives students a real opportunity to learn more and to use what they get in these practical experiences.”


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