English major digs geology

Laura Marris ’10 took part in a three-week field research trip to Wyoming, led by two Yale grad students, to research continental shift.
Laura Marris ’10 took part in a three-week field research trip to Wyoming, led by two Yale grad students, to research continental shift. Photo by Laura Marris.

After four years of focusing on creative writing and poetry, Laura Marris ’10 joined Taylor Kilian GRD ’14 and Joseph Panzik GRD ’14 on a project that uses paleomagnetic data to understand large-scale shifts of the Earth’s crust. She spent three weeks in Wyoming with geology researchers, maintaining a blog and helping to organize samples, and returned home Wednesday morning.

An English major, Marris found herself in the middle of her senior year needing a science credit. She was always fascinated by volcanoes, she said, and decided to enroll in geology and geophysics chairman David Bercovici’s “Natural Disasters” class. As part of the course, she and 17 other students from the class went on a trip to Dominica with geology and geophysics professor Maureen Long to install seismometers, which piqued her interest in geology and geophysics.

Marris was a “real trooper,” Bercovici wrote in an e-mail, explaining that he dubbed her “the field poet.”

And when alumnus Alex Kain ’09 later visited the class to present about his experience writing dispatches from a research vessel in the Beaufort Sea, Marris was intrigued by the demand for good documentation of field research and knew she wanted to do something similar.

Marris spoke with Bercovici, who introduced her to Kilian, the project leader, who then invited Marris to join the team as a field assistant.

The project, which is Kilian’s doctoral topic, is aiming to use rock samples to trace the path of continental drift, Panzik explained.

To prepare for the three-week long trip, Marris said, she borrowed most of the essentials, such as a tent, backpack and camera from friends, adding that the only camping equipment she owned was a pair of boots and sleeping bag that she used during her FOOT trip. Marris said she knew the landscape would be beautiful, but she did not know what else to expect. Kilian told her she needed “a spirit of adventure,” so she went in with an open mind, she said.

“Both [Laura and Kilian] contain an openness which is required … when interpreting geology or when sampling does not go as planned,” Panzik wrote in an e-mail.

While in Wyoming, Marris used her writing abilities to maintain a blog, which she updated at night or in the mornings, usually every other day when the team returned to the hotel.

Marris said she had three major goals for the blog, which also features photos: to document the field work as it progressed, to describe the geological findings in an accessible way and finally to give a sense of the places they encountered.

“The hardest part was trying to find the time,” she said, referring to updating the blog.

When the team was not collecting ancient fragments of the earth’s crust, they spent time cooking meals together and watching western films, Marris said.

“I enjoyed the project as a whole; the hiking and camping. Working with both Laura and Taylor has been a pleasure,” wrote Panzik in an e-mail.

Wyoming might have been Marris’s first geology trip as a field assistant, but she said it is just the beginning. She will be heading to Peru in a few weeks, again with Long to install seismometers, though in the long-term, she hopes to pursue a career in journalism.

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