Classes begin again for Wooster Geologists

August 27th, 2012

The happy students above are in our 8:00 a.m. History of Life course (Geology 100). They are the first class to use our newly-renovated Scovel 105 room. To remind you what it used to look like —

This new room is far more comfortable for both students and faculty. We don’t miss the 1985 color scheme either! You can see the progress made on Scovel 105 in this series of images.

Scovel 105 was first officially used for the Junior Independent Study presentation of Kit Price (’13) and the Senior I.S. presentation of Richa Ekka (’13). They each worked during the summer on their projects and gave their summaries to a group of faculty and students on Friday afternoon.

Kit Price (’13) and her very last slide. She worked on Cincinnati area fossils this summer. Note the new lecture table top.

Richa Ekka (’13), also with her last slide. She did field work in Estonia this summer.

 

A pleasant and productive geological walk in the woods

August 1st, 2012

WOOSTER, OHIO–One of the best parts of my job is answering questions from the public about rocks and fossils. Now that I’m Secretary of the Paleontological Society, I get queries every day about something or other. (And since my brief stint on Ancient Aliens, some of my mail is predictably bizarre!) Sometimes the questions are local and students and I get to meet enthusiastic amateur geologists in the field. This morning Andy Nash (’14) and I drove a few miles north of Wooster to look at curious rocks a family had collected, and to walk through their stone-filled creek. It was delightful.

This part of Ohio has many exotic rocks scattered across its surface in Pleistocene glacial till. These rocks have their origin on the Canadian Shield and include just about every igneous and metamorphic lithology you can imagine. The family we visited had many examples of these glacial erratics. The most impressive rocks to Andy and me were pieces of the Gowganda Tillite, one of which is shown above. This rock represents lithified glacial till and is a very impressive 2.3 billion (billion-with-a-“b”) years old. This great age, plus the fact that it is a tillite within a till, makes these variegated rocks very special. The family is going to donate this one to the department, even though it will take a tractor to haul it out!

Another bonus for our brief visit was this creek exposure of the Meadville Shale Member of the Cuyahoga Formation (Kinderhookian, Carboniferous). An outcrop like this so close to campus will be useful for future paleontology field trips and maybe even an Independent Study project or two. The family that owns the land is very excited to share it. (By the way, my first paper was on a trilobite collected from the Meadville Shale in Lodi, Ohio.)

The shale outcrop is periodically broken up by floods on this little creek. Here you see scattered pieces of the gray shale, many of which have trace and body fossils in them. This shale weathers rapidly, exposing the fossils quickly. The downside of that is that the fossils are also destroyed quickly by weathering. They need the kind attention of paleontologists!

This is why we love to answer questions about geology: everyone learns in the process!

Busy Wooster geology labs this summer

August 1st, 2012

WOOSTER, OHIO–This has been a particularly active summer in Scovel Hall, home of Wooster’s Geology Department. All our fieldwork eventually results in labwork, so our student geologists have been spending quality time with rocksaws, microscopes, computers and x-ray analytical equipment. I thought it might be fun to walk through the building recording the good science going on.

In the above scene, Kit Price (’13) is cutting Late Ordovician limestones containing fossils she collected on our field trip to Indiana last Saturday. Rest assured that she has all the safety equipment for this saw! Her hands are necessarily close to the diamond-studded blade to control the specimen that she cuts. She is trimming matrix away from the fossils so that they are easier to study and store.

Former student Dr. Katherine Nicholson Marenco (’03) visited this summer from Bryn Mawr to continue work on her Independent Study project on Jurassic fossils from southern England. She brought many new ideas to this work, helped us considerably on the Indiana field trip, and even took the time to train us on using Adobe Illustrator software for geological projects. Above she is wrapping up Jurassic specimens for later study in her lab.

Katherine and I plotted out ideas for our work on the English Jurassic fossils with the chalkboard in the paleontology lab. For some reason I find it easier to think with chalk in my hand!

Also in the paleontology lab is Richa Ekka (’13) continuing her work on Silurian specimens we collected on the southeast coast of Saaremaa Island in Estonia last month. She has made certain all her specimens are properly cleaned, sorted and labeled (“sample management”), and has now started on thin-sections and sedimentological analysis.

Tricia Hall (’14) was part of Team Utah earlier this summer. Now she is working on basalt specimens in the fancy new x-ray analytical lab set up by Dr. Meagen Pollock.

The coolest thing she is doing (well, the hottest, actually) is producing glass “beads” of powdered rock and flux by melting the mixture in an automatic spinning furnace that heats up to more than 1000°C. These beads are then used in the x-ray fluorescence spectrometer for elemental analysis. Above you can see the glowing orange puddle of artificial lava as it cools after being poured from the furnace.

The dendrochronology lab of Dr. Greg Wiles is as busy as ever this summer. The students there are measuring tree ring widths for a variety of projects, including the Independent Study projects of Jenn Horton (’13; above) and Lauren Vargo (’13; below) based on work they did in Alaska this June.

Will Cary (’13) is also working in the dendrochronology lab this summer. His Independent Study involves the ballistics of volcanic bombs in Utah, but he’s spending some time as a digital image expert for Dr. Wiles.

Andy Nash (’14) has been measuring tree-ring widths and doing a little coring for Dr. Wiles this summer. He may miss the quiet days in this air-conditioned lab when he starts two-a-day practices for the football team in ten days.

Nick Wiesenberg has been working in the dendrochronology lab for a long time now. He has an intuitive feel for wood. Here he shows the device for calculating tree ring widths by precisely moving them under a microscope set up with a measuring device.

During all this labwork, our two main Scovel lecture rooms are being extensively renovated to give us a fresh beginning with our fall semester courses that begin in less than a month. It can be a bit hectic, all this activity, but our Administrative Coordinator Patrice Reeder is keeping it all under control. It is refreshing to see such happy enthusiasm for the geological sciences.

 

Scovel Hall lecture room renovations begin (periodically updated)

May 31st, 2012

20120531-154554.jpg Our beloved Scovel Hall lecture rooms are finally being updated. The fixed seats in Room 105 endured by generations of student behinds are headed to the dumpster (including their 1985 color scheme) and will be replaced by tables and movable chairs. Seating capacity will go from the huge 83 to a more comfortable 50. The more flexible seating will allow us to move around more in the classroom. Scovel 205 upstairs is also being redone in a similar way.

I’ve taught in the present arrangement for 27 years. I’m anxious to teach in the new improved rooms!

Scovel Room 105 on June 6th with all seats removed.

Where those chairs and the carpet ended up!

 

The new carpet in Scovel 105 on July 31.

 

Scovel 105 in early August 2012.

First class in the new Scovel 100! (History of Life, 8:00 a.m., August 27, 2012)

Forbes lists Geology as 7th in its “15 Most Valuable College Majors”

May 26th, 2012

Sure it is intellectually stimulating, adventurous and fun, but geology is also an important field for the present and future according to the latest issue of Forbes magazine. Geology is ranked as number 7 in the most valuable college majors, with a starting median pay of $45,300 and a “mid-career” rise in pay of 84%. The projected job growth in geology is 19.3%.

Top image: Rob McConnell and Palmer Shonk in Estonia. Bottom image: Sophie Lehmann in England.

A rite of passage: Geology Junior Independent Study presentations

May 6th, 2012

WOOSTER, OHIO–The College of Wooster requires an Independent Study (I.S.) thesis (or performance) from all of its graduates. These are not just extended literature reviews, but unique research projects crafted for and by each of our students. We devote three semesters to the process. Readers of this blog are well acquainted with Senior I.S. work because we highlight each study with multiple entries. The first I.S. semester, which is usually (but not always) taken in the spring of the junior year, gets far less outside attention. This is because most of the work is preparation for the research to come in the following summer and school year. Students and faculty sort out projects for each junior, narrow and focus their objectives, and then do a thorough library study to form hypotheses to test in the field or lab. Occasionally we have specimens to work on as a preview, or have even done some of the fieldwork during Spring Break. No matter what, though, each student eventually presents his or her research ideas to the faculty and fellow classmates. Last week most of our juniors gave their talks and posters. (Two of our juniors are out of sequence; one presented last semester, the other will this summer.)

This presentation is the first of three that these students will give to the department about their projects. It is always the most difficult because the research is just beginning and the students are new to giving talks. By their senior years these same students will feel like veteran speakers and masters of their topics. As juniors, though, the task is daunting. The faculty make the proceedings a little less formal than the senior presentations (note in the photo above Anna Mudd is giving her talk on paleosols from a cart as a podium!), but our juniors are still facing a group of their peers … and scary faculty charged with evaluating their performances. The students came through this year and did very well.

New to the system this year were posters from the Utah group (explained below). Each of these four students still gave an oral presentation, but rather than all repeating the same basic framework information (location, geological setting, etc.), they began their set of talks with these poster discussions. Above we see Kevin Silver starting to explain the Utah integrated projects, with Whitney Sims ready to do her part at the end.

Four students (and Clare Booth Luce award winner Tricia Hall) are going with Dr. Shelley Judge and Dr. Meagen Pollock to the Black Rock Desert in south-central Utah to explore petrological and structural questions:

Will Cary will be looking at the ballistics of volcanic bombs thrown from the eruptions.
Whitney Sims will examine the petrology and geochemistry of particular lava flows.
Kevin Silver is studying xenoliths in these lava flows.
Matt Peppers will be doing a fracture analysis of the Ice Springs lava flow.

Two of our students will be doing Keck Geology Consortium projects this summer:

Anna Mudd is examining paleosols (ancient soils) developed in the northeastern Oregon.
Joe Wilch is assessing metamorphic core complexes in the northern Snake Range of Nevada.

Two students are traveling with Dr. Mark Wilson to the western islands of Estonia:

Richa Ekka will concentrate on petrology and paleoenvironments of Silurian carbonates.
Jonah Novek will study Silurian paleocommunities and recovery faunas.

Two students will be in Glacier Bay, Alaska, with Dr. Greg Wiles:

Jenn Horton and Lauren Vargo will study the reaction of trees (and their rings) to climate change and isostatic rebound.

Finally:

Melissa Torma is studying Jurassic faunas in Israel with Dr. Wilson.
Kit Price will be examining Ordovician sclerobionts in the Cincinnati region, also with Dr. Wilson.

This summer you will see blog posts from all of the above as they start their senior adventures!

Now this is field trip weather

May 1st, 2012

WOOSTER, OHIO–It is now difficult to believe that we were measuring stratigraphic sections in a sleety thunderstorm on Saturday. Today the Tuesday lab of my Sedimentology & Stratigraphy course visited a local outcrop of the Logan Formation (Lower Carboniferous) to get more practice with stratigraphic techniques. What an enjoyable afternoon!

Students hard at work on the Logan Formation outcrop in Wooster. I’m hoping there’s no poison ivy in there.

Alex Hiatt and Cam Matesich looking very closely at the sandstone like good sedimentary geologists.

A set of male pine cones that have already distributed their pollen.

Andy Nash found this Eastern American Toad (Bufo americanus americanus) and our amphibian expert Ned Weakland captured it. Ned’s advisor Rick Lehtinen picked up a similar toad last semester on a short geology field trip. It made us feel all the more that we were in Spring at last.

Wooster Geologists at the 2012 Senior Research Symposium

April 27th, 2012

WOOSTER, OHIO–Six Wooster geology seniors presented their research to the campus and public this morning in Kauke Hall on the College of Wooster campus. They were among the first posters in the annual Senior Research Symposium in which Independent Study projects are highlighted and celebrated. They did very well — their geology faculty advisors are proud indeed. Here they are with their presentations:

Sarah Appleton ’12: Dating of the Mid-Holocene History and Glacial Stratigraphy of the Wachusett Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Southeast Alaska. (Links to Sarah’s work on the Wooster Geologist’s blog.)

Lindsey Bowman ’12: Geochemical and Field Relationships of Pillow and Dike Units in a Subglacial Pillow Unit, Undirhlíðar Quarry, Southwest Iceland. (Links to Lindsey’s work on the Wooster Geologists blog.)

Andrew Collins ’12: A Comparison and Analog-Based Analysis of Sinuous Channels on Rift Aprons of Ascraeus Mons and Pavonis Mons Volcanoes, Mars. (Links to Andrew’s work on the Wooster Geologists blog.)

Nick Fedorchuk ’12: Stratigraphy and Paleoecology of the Wenlock/Ludlow Boundary on Saaremaa Island, Estonia. (Links to Nick’s work on the Wooster Geologists blog.)

Rachel Matt ’12: Paleoecology of the Hilliste Formation (Lower Silurian, Llandovery, Rhuddanian) on Hiiumaa Island, Estonia: An Example of a Shallow Marine Recovery Fauna. (Links to Rachel’s work on the Wooster Geologists blog.)

Katharine Schleich ’12: A Geochemical and Petrographic Analysis of the Hrafnfjordur Central Volcano, Westfjords, Iceland. (Links to Katharine’s work on the Wooster Geologist blog.)

Well done, Wooster Geologists!

 

On Being A Female Geologist

March 9th, 2012

Happy International Women’s Day! I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a female geology professor ever since the Wooster Alumni Magazine featured an article on Annie Irish, the first woman on Wooster’s faculty. Her portrait graces the foyer of the Timken Science Library, so I see Annie every Research Friday, yet I’ve never really thought about her role (or mine) in Wooster’s legacy.

The portrait of Annie Irish that presides over the Timken Science Library entry.

Annie clearly made an impact on the Wooster community and was much loved on campus. According to an 1897 Wooster Alumni Bulletin, her portrait was a gift given by alumni (Annie’s former students) to Hoover Cottage. Women’s cottages were one of the many ways that Annie advocated for female students. She envisioned campus housing that would help female students feel comfortable and develop networks. Annie’s legacy is carried on by the Women’s Advisory Board, established in 1892, which provides financial support for international and female students.

Supporting the education of women is a longstanding and widespread issue, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Every two years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) compiles a report on the status of Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. They’ve found that women are participating in the physical sciences and mathematics at relatively low levels. Although the percentage of physical science degrees awarded to women has grown since the early 1990s, women are still earning those degrees at relatively low levels compared to men.

Percentage of degrees awarded to women in the physical sciences and mathematics between 1990 and 2008. Source: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2011.

The participation of women in the sciences can be broadened by funding agencies that make it a strategic goal at all academic levels. The NSF ADVANCE program, for example, supports projects that encourage women to pursue academia as a career. Some ADVANCE projects, like MU-ADVANCE at my undergraduate alma mater, make changes at the institutional level. Other ADVANCE projects support women by establishing and maintaining partnerships. The Earth Science Women’s Network is just one example of an ADVANCE project that provides peer-mentoring opportunities for female scientists. At the undergraduate and graduate levels, the Clare Boothe Luce Program supports women who are pursuing degrees in science, engineering, and math. Just this year, Wooster had the good fortune to designate four female science majors as Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars, who will be provided funding to conduct research and travel to conferences.

Funding isn’t the only strategy for supporting female scientists; women need strong role models and effective mentoring. The Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG), for example, is one organization that not only awards scholarships, but also sponsors outreach activities and facilitates mentoring. I didn’t discover AWG until graduate school, which is where I first encountered female geology professors (with the exception of one fabulous female geoscientist who ran an REU that changed my life). This isn’t to say that my undergraduate professors were poor mentors; I just wonder how my perspectives (and those of my classmates) would have changed if we had had a female role model.

Fortunately, strong female geoscientists are somewhat easier to find today. In fact, half of the Wooster Geology Department consists of female faculty members, and this is where I might find my legacy at Wooster. I can encourage women to pursue the geosciences by sharing my experiences, connecting them to resources, and helping them realize their potential. A quick glance at the list of recent College and Departmental award recipients reveals a talented group of female geology majors:

Tricia - One of the four Clare Boothe Luce Scholars from The College of Wooster.

Lindsey - Co-winner of the 2012 Charles B. Moke Prize for showing the greatest improving during her college career.

Sarah - Co-winner of the 2012 Charles B. Moke Prize for showing the greatest improvement during her college career.

Anna - 2012 Karl VerSteeg Prize winner, awarded to the major who has the highest general standing in the middle of the junior year.

Congratulations to these talented young geologists! You are examples of promising young women who enhance the image of female geoscientists everywhere.

UPDATED (11:55 PM): Looking for other posts on female geologists? Try  Looking for Detachment’s 2010 post on Cornelia Clermont Cameron or Scientific American’s post on Geologizing Women. Thanks to @sfoxx for the links!

References:

Dixon, M. 2012. Reconstructing Annie. Wooster 126: 28-31.

Scovel, S.F., and Compton, E., eds. 1897. Alumni Roundtable. The Post-Graduate and Wooster Quarterly XI (4): 339-354.

 

A Wooster Geologist … on TV?

March 3rd, 2012

The irony of me appearing for brief moments as a commentator on last night’s episode of Ancient Aliens (“Aliens and Mega-Disasters“) is that I teach a course at Wooster entitled “Nonsense! And Why It’s So Popular“. One of our favorite topics is the American obsession with extraterrestrials, ancient and otherwise. Now I’m actually embedded forever in an episode of this popular pseudoscientific show, and getting there was so much fun.

My stint as a TV talking head was not the result of a national talent search for a suave and photogenic geologist — I’d have no chance at that! — but instead through our Director of Public Information, John Finn. He convinced me to let him nominate me for the show after the producer asked if we had any geologists who might want to give it a go.

The producer of this episode of Ancient Aliens, who works for Prometheus Entertainment, called me in December 2011 and outlined what she wanted from the “scientific talent”. She was very friendly, honest and frank about the programming, assuring me from the start that I wouldn’t “lose my science card” by participating. She wanted scientists to help frame the scientific issues, naturally, and then she would slot in the “other talent” to present the extraterrestrial angles. She knew very well from my webpages, CV and continual reminders that I am, shall we say politely, not convinced by the evidence for the ancient alien hypothesis. She kept her word, too, and made certain that I and the other scientists in the show did not appear to be lending any support to these speculations.

On January 3rd a film crew arrived at the College early in the morning and set up an interview studio in our second-floor teaching laboratory (Scovel 205). They knew just what to do and where because the producer had asked me earlier to send her photographs of likely places for filming. The crew consisted of four men: a lighting expert, a sound man, a guy who helped set up equipment and communicate with headquarters, and a field producer in charge. Watching these men work was fascinating. They love their craft and spent hours making sure everything looked and sounded right. They were so much fun to work with, and they told many stories of other “shoots” they had been on for dozens of other shows. They were all very informed on scientific issues, and they asked me lot of questions just out of curiosity.

In the one photo (above) I snapped of the set up process, you can see some of the preparations in the lab, including the many lights, filters and cables. Eventually that whole wall was covered with black-out sheets. On the tables are trays of fossils for demonstrations and extra footage that may prove useful someday (for what they called “B-roll”).

The field producer made sure I signed the various contracts necessary for this work. “Scientific talent” does not get paid on these shows, in case you were wondering, and the exclusive rights to the footage are given to the production company “forever” and “throughout the universe”. After the interview studio was constructed in our lab and the camera set up, the film team sent test shots to Hollywood for their approval. Once it came (and it came quickly), we started the interview.

I had been sent a list of questions about a week before the shoot, so I knew the broad outlines of what was coming. The field producer was so good at essentially having a conversation with me about the topics that all my rehearsed answers quickly dropped away. There is some danger in that as a scientist, of course, when you find yourself just glibly talking for hours without notes, but I certainly understand why they don’t just want to record one of our tedious lectures. We just chatted, with my interviewer occasionally reminding me to repeat the question at the start of my answers. He had many of his own ideas and insights, so the process was quite engaging. It is hard to believe now, but at the time I had quickly forgotten about the microphones, camera and hot lights. I suppose this is how reality television works.

The interviews, which lasted all day, were recorded on actual film. At the end of the process they bundled up all the film for an overnight express mailing to Hollywood. The film crew deconstructed the interview set-up and returned the lab to exactly its former condition, aided by iPhone photos they made of the room beforehand. You would never know they were there.

Last night the results appeared on the History Channel. In the screen-grab above (I tried hard to snap a non-dorky pose but was not successful!) you can see the carefully placed microscope in the background, the backlit door, the posters to fill blank spaces on the walls, and the subtly-lit bookshelves. It really does look like professional television. The episode itself is available here, at least for a short time.

Through this adventure I learned a lot about the profession of filming and the integrity of the production crews, and I now have some insights into how an episode of a program like this is constructed. Again, I must emphasize that this whole aliens-came-to-Earth scenario has zero scientific support (and really, alien bases in active volcanoes?). I like to believe, though, that even through this unlikely medium some people out there are receiving the occasional veiled hints of real science.

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