Archive for May, 2017

Wooster Geologists graduate!

May 18th, 2017

WOOSTER, OHIO — We had the pleasure on Monday of watching our geology seniors cross the stage and receive their diplomas. It happens every year, of course, and every year is special. Above is an image of most of the class taken in September as they started their last year at Wooster.

We were delighted that Wooster Geologist Helen Siegel (’17) earned the opportunity to speak at the commencement ceremony. (Image by ace College photographer Matt Dilyard.) She was a spectacular representation of her graduating class. She earned summa cum laude, Honors in Independent Study, the Jonas O. Notestein Prize, the Phi Beta Kappa Prize, and just about every award offered by the Geology Department itself. She is off to Yale on a full ride. Well done, Helen.

Sarah McGrath (’17) was another summa cum laude geology graduate; Clara Deck (’17), Annette Hilton (’17) and Chloe Wallace (’17) earned magna cum laude. It was a remarkably talented class — we’re proud of every student.


What is a clean lab?

May 16th, 2017

Chapel Hill, NC – Ben Kumpf (’18) and I are at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to use their lab facilities for isotope analysis. We’re working with small amounts of sample and the instrument has a high degree of analytical precision and sensitivity, so all of our sample preparation occurs in the class-1000 clean lab. A clean lab is a room that is specifically designed to limit the amount of airborne contaminants. Special air filters and air distribution systems keep the environment clean so that we can minimize contamination while we separate and purify the isotopes.

Clean labs are classified based on the amounts of specifically sized particles allowed in a cubic meter (~35 cubic feet) of air. If we sample a cubic meter of air in the class-1000 lab and measure the amount of particles that are 5 microns in diameter, we would count no more than 293! For comparison, human hair has a diameter of about 50 to 100 microns, so we’re talking about really tiny bits of airborne dust. Class-1000 refers to Federal Standard 209E, where class-1 is the cleanest space and class-100,000 is the dirtiest (but still pretty darn clean). Federal Standard 209E has been replaced by International Organization for Standardization ISO 14644-1 standards. The new standards include one dirtier and two cleaner classifications and are numbered ISO-1 to ISO-9. Class-1000 is equivalent to ISO-6. UNC Chapel Hill also has a class-100 (ISO-5) clean lab where they process zircons for U-Pb dating.

Before we enter the clean lab, we gear up in the gowning room. The garments are designed to protect the wearer and minimize contamination from the wearer’s body. We wear standard lab safety attire, like glasses, gloves, and a lab coat. We also remove our shoes and exchange them for designated (comfy) slip-on shoes that only go in the clean lab.

Ben Kumpf (’18) models the clean lab outfit, complete with matching Carolina Blue accents. I see a theme.

Let the summer research commence!

May 15th, 2017

Chapel Hill, NC – As the College of Wooster Commencement ceremony was just finishing, our rising seniors were starting their summer research. Ben Kumpf (’18) and I are visiting the labs in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We are using their Isotope Geochemistry Lab to measure Sr-Nd-Pb isotopes of pillow lavas from our study site in northern British Columbia. The first step in the process is to dissolve our rock powders using several strong acids. Fortunately, we were able to send some of our samples in advance, and the good folks here at UNC dissolved about half of our samples for us.

Ben Kumpf (’18) went straight from his flight to the lab and is already hard at work. He measured portions of the dissolved samples into new vials so that we can prepare them for Sr isotope analysis. The dissolved samples will be made into solutions that we’ll use tomorrow.

Look for our posts in the following week to learn more about how isotopes are analyzed and what we hope to learn.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Belemnites (Jurassic of Wyoming)

May 12th, 2017

This week’s fossils are among the most recognizable. They certainly are popular in my paleontology courses because no one has ever misidentified one. Belemnites (from the Greek belemnon, meaning javelin or dart) were squid-like cephalopods that lived in the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. You would never guess their original appearance from the fossils above. These are guards or rostra, internal hard parts that look nothing like the external animal. They are often found in large accumulations called “belemnite battlefields” (Doyle and MacDonald, 1993).
The above image shows a remarkable fossil belemnite in the State Museum of Natural History, Stuttgart, Germany (courtesy of User Rai’ke on Wikimedia). It shows their squidy form and ten equal-sized arms studded with little hooks for holding prey. They probably ate small fish and invertebrates.
The guard or rostrum is solid calcite at its distal end with a phragmocone (chambered shell) at the other. This phragmocone is only rarely preserved. The rostrum above is from the Zohar Formation (Jurassic) of the Golan in northern Israel near Neve Atif.

Belemnites have played an important role recently in sorting out Mesozoic climate change. Their solid calcitic rostra are ideal for examining stable isotopes that fluctuated with water temperature. Dera et al. (2011) showed that the Jurassic had significant climate variations based on the isotopes in belemnite fossils.

Belemnites have a long history in folklore. The English called them “thunderbolts” because they thought they were formed by lightning strikes. The Scottish knew them as “botstones” that cured horses of various ailments. The Swedish thought they were “gnome candles”. The Chinese called them “sword stones”. Much more prosaically, the belemnite is the state fossil of Delaware.
An engraving of belemnite rostra by Captain Thomas Brown (1889).


Brown, Captain T. 1889. An atlas of fossil conchology of Great Britain and Ireland. With descriptions of all the species. Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Dera, G., Brigaud, B., Monna, F., Laffont, R., Pucéat, E., Deconinck, J-F., Pellenard, P., Joachimski, M.M., and Durlet, C. 2011. Climatic ups and downs in a disturbed Jurassic world. Geology 39: 215–218.

Doyle, P. and MacDonald, D.I.M. 1993. Belemnite battlefields. Lethaia 26: 65-80.

[Originally published on November 20, 2011.]

The 30th Annual Keck Symposium and the Importance of Presentation in the Undergraduate Research Experience

May 11th, 2017

Middletown, CT – Wesleyan University recently hosted the 30th annual Keck Symposium. The Keck Symposium is one of the key features that separates Keck projects from other types of undergraduate research experiences. Most other REU programs are confined to the summer, but Keck projects continue through the following academic year and culminate in the Symposium. Research groups reunite to synthesize their individual results and present their work to a broader scientific community. The Symposium is also a best practice and an essential part of the undergraduate research experience. By presenting their research, students transition from private to public discovery and contribute knowledge to the scientific discourse. They develop confidence in their abilities and advance their independence as scientists (Lopatto, 2009).

Wooster Geologists, Andrew Conaway (’17), Chloe Wallace (’17), and Meagen Pollock are happy passengers headed to the Keck Symposium.

The Keck Symposium format involves two sessions of oral presentations followed by poster presentations. With coffee and muffins in hand, the Keck Iceland group is ready for the morning session.

Each research group provides an overview of their projects. Students present their work in a brief 5 minutes. Andrew Conaway (’17) tells the audience about the history of land use around the Wisconsin lakes that he studied.

The oral sessions are followed by poster sessions, where the students can discuss their work in detail. Andrew Conaway (’17) talks about his research on magnetic susceptibility in lake cores.

Chloe Wallace (’17) discusses her research on volatile contents of pillow lavas from a subglacial ridge in southwest Iceland.

Team Iceland celebrates the end of our poster session with a final group photo. The Symposium also provides an opportunity for faculty to catch up and network. It’s an important professional development opportunity, particularly for early-career faculty.

Another important thing that happens at the Keck Symposium is the review of copy-edited short contributions. Each student writes an extended abstract of ~2500 words and 5 figures, which is compiled and published in a Symposium Volume. Team Iceland goes through their short contributions one last time at the lunch break.

It’s an intense weekend, but the smiles on our faces at the end of it all (despite the early morning flight) show that it’s worth the effort.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: a medullosalean pteridosperm (Upper Carboniferous of northeastern Ohio)

May 5th, 2017

It is time we had another fossil plant in this series. The above specimen is Neuropteris ovata Hoffmann 1826, a relatively common bit of foliage in the Upper Carboniferous of North America. This is a pteridosperm, more commonly known as a seed fern. They weren’t really ferns at all but fern-like plants with some of the first real seeds. They are usually reconstructed as trees, but were also known to be bushy or even like climbing vines.

The taxonomy (naming system) of fossil plants can be very complicated because different plant parts were given different names at different times. A single plant species, then, could have a list of names for its foliage, bark, roots, seeds, etc. The name Neuropteris usually thus refers to the leaves of this particular pteridosperm.

Neuropteris ovata is famous for its use in studies of the distribution of stomata on its leaf surfaces. Stomata, sometimes called guard cells, regulate gas exchange and moisture retention in vascular land plants. The density of stomata on N. ovata leaves in the Late Carboniferous may reflect changes in carbon dioxide levels and the expansion and contraction of tropical forests (Cleal et al., 1999).

Neuropteris ovata was named by Friedrich Hoffmann (1797-1836), a Professor of Geology at the University of Berlin. I wish I knew more about him because not only did he do considerable paleobotanical research, he was also well known for his work on volcanoes in Italy. You don’t see that combination very often!


Beeler, H.E. 1983. Anatomy and frond architecture of Neuropteris ovata and N. scheuchzeri from the Upper Pennsylvanian of the Appalachian Basin. Canadian Journal of Botany 61: 2352-2368.

Cleal, C.J., James, R.M. and Zodrow, E.L. 1999. Variation in stomatal density in the Late Carboniferous gymnosperm frond Neuropteris ovata. Palaios 14: 180-185.

Hoffmann, F. 1826. Untersuchungen über die Pänzen-Reste des Kohlengebirges von Ibbenbühren und von Piesberg bei Osnabrück. Archiv für Bergbau und Hüttenwesen 13: 266-282.

Zodrow, E.L. and Cleal, C.J. 1988. The structure of the Carboniferous pteridosperm frond Neuropteris ovata Hoffman. Palaeontographica Abteilung Palaophytologie 208: 105-124.

[Originally posted on October 23, 2011.]

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