Music, geology and mushing: Persistent undergrad Kailyn Davis plays in many fields

Kailyn Davis couldn’t figure out how to rappel past a knot in her climbing rope. So she hung on the wall at the Student Recreation Center and studied the problem.

For three hours.

Her instructor, Jeff Benowitz, waited below.

“He finally just lowered me and was like ‘Go home,’” Davis said.

She didn’t go home. “I went to the library and Googled everything,” she said.

Now, a few years later, the lesson still sticks with Davis, a UAF senior who majors in music education and geology.

“I remember how to do the thing that I was trying to figure out how to do. That hasn’t left me,” she said.

Such intelligent persistence is just what Benowitz hopes to encourage — not only as her climbing instructor but also as her geology professor. Off the climbing wall, Davis works with Benowitz, a research assistant professor, at the Geochronology Laboratory in the Reichardt Building. They analyze rocks to estimate their ages.

“Kailyn really works hard. She really wants to achieve the utmost,” Benowitz said. “I think it’s part of being a musician — and she’s a classical musician. There is a bar, there is a standard, and it’s clear if you didn’t reach that standard.”

In turn, Davis said, Benowitz’s teaching style encourages her to think for herself.

In climbing classes, she said, “lots of people accuse of him not teaching at all. He’ll basically be like, ‘OK, today here’s what you’re going to do, and go figure it out.’ I see ties with the research too. It’s like ‘I’m not going to show you how to do it, but I’m going to tell you what I want the end product to look like.’”

Kailyn Davis pauses while mushing a team from Black Spruce Dog Sledding along the Old Murphy Dome Road north of Fairbanks in March 2014. Photo by Lindsey Dreese.

Music drew Davis to UAF from Anchorage, but she couldn’t stay away from rocks.

“When I was in kindergarten, my mom got really mad at me because I filled my pockets up with rocks in the jacket that my grandma made me and totally busted holes in all the pockets,” Davis said.

After arriving at UAF, she took a geology class to see if identifying rocks could cure her habit of collecting them. “I think I just started collecting twice as many rocks and added a second major, so now I’m studying geology.”

She’s not just studying it; she’s conducting her own research. At a recent conference in Vancouver, B.C., she presented a poster demonstrating that the Nenana River switched directions about 20 million years ago.

The project would have made a good master’s degree thesis, Benowitz said. “It was a little much for undergrad, but she did good.” 

Davis is ambitious, too, and not only when pursuing rocks and music. She wants to run the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. In 2014, she competed in the Copper Basin 300 but had to scratch. Sixty miles from the finish, her team quit. 

“I’d just walk like 60 meters up and call them, and they’d run up and sit down again,” she said. “We just did that for about four hours until someone came out on a snowmachine and checked on us.” 

Benowitz sees such perseverance in Davis’ personal and academic endeavors as an asset.

In climbing, he said, “if you fail and it upsets you … and you keep trying, you’re likely going to turn out to be a good climber. Same with science.”

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