Geo majors make summer treks

Geology and geophysics majors traveled to locations around the globe this summer for research and learning opportunities.
Geology and geophysics majors traveled to locations around the globe this summer for research and learning opportunities. Photo by Will Gearty.

While most Yalies spend their summers in air-conditioned labs or offices, many geology and geophysics majors take to the field instead, unearthing Triassic-era skulls or examining billion-year-old rocks.

Students say doing outdoor field work is a way to solidify their interest in the major and get a feel for a geology career outside of the classroom, as well as providing an opportunity to travel to unusual locales. This past summer, Yale geology majors worked at sites from Arizona to Peru to Namibia, either joining larger research teams or pursuing their own senior project research. Majors interviewed said the department facilitated these trips, providing funding through professors’ grants and helping students find opportunities and fellowships.

In June, Chris Brown ’15 and Will Gearty ’14 joined a team of researchers that drove from New Haven to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona on a dig organized and funded by the Peabody Museum of Natural History to search for remains of phytosaurs. Phytosaurs lived during the Triassic Period, approximately 225 million years ago, and looked much like today’s crocodile, though probably larger, Gearty said.

The team succeeded in finding a phytosaur skull as well as other smaller fossils from prehistoric fish during the course of their five weeks in Arizona. The specimens excavated will be studied further at the Peabody Museum.

Gearty and Brown described the experience, their first doing field work outside of a class field trip, as strenuous but rewarding. Each day they woke at 6 a.m. and walked a mile to the dig, where they worked under a tent to stay out of the heat. From morning until nightfall they dug for fossils, occasionally venturing out to search for fossils in the as-yet unstudied surrounding area.

“Though [the researchers] did not acknowledge the existence of weekends, the work was very fulfilling,” Gearty said.

Other undergraduates assist professors in their research. In May, Jennifer Kasbohm ’13 worked with Maureen Long, professor of geology and geophysics, on a project to gather seismology data in Peru.

Long is part of a research team that has placed seismographs across Peru in an effort to understand the unique geological processes that occur in the region. Kasbohm acted as a Spanish language interpreter and data recorder for a team of graduate students that had to visit every seismograph to collect its data. Some of the locations were very remote, Kasbohm said.

“It was also an eye-opener on local culture,” she added.

Kasbohm’s geology work for the summer was not confined to Peru. She also spent four weeks in Namibia where she conducted her own research as part of her senior project. She received her funding through the Karen Von Damm ’77 Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Geology and Geophysics and the Alan S. Tetelman 1958 Fellowship for International Research in the Sciences to examine the paleogeography of the Sinclair terrain in Southern Namibia.

The rocks in that area are special because they are old enough to help piece together Rodinia, an ancient supercontinent present around one billion years ago. The earth’s magnetic field varies and these variations allow for dating of the rocks through paleomagnetism. This research is an offshoot of research on supercontinents {http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/feb/28/super-smash-continent-predicted/} by David Evans, the director of undergraduate studies of the Geology and Geophysics Department, to which Kasbohm had contributed last summer.

She was joined by graduate student Joseph Panzik GRD ’14, who worked on a related project and by Jenna Hessert ’14 who served as Kasbohm’s field assistant. Hessert said that the Namibia experience was less structured and more actual field work than the “geology tourism” of some class trips.

Some G&G majors pass up the opportunity for field work to do research instead. Stella Cao ’14, a G&G major in its newly developed energy and environment track, spent the summer in Alaska researching Arctic energy for the Institute of the North, an Anchorage-based nonprofit.

“What people don’t realize is that the United States is an Arctic country and that we will be more and more dependent on resources from Alaska,” she said.

Cao said she had thought about doing field work but decided her time could be better spent learning communication skills and informing the general population about science issues. She added that she was drawn to the internship partly for the opportunity to travel to Alaska.

Evans said that although students were encouraged do field work, theoretical and laboratory work were also crucial to geology research. He added that the department is trying to push the new energy and environment track of the major, which includes courses on renewable energy and fossil fuels, with the hope of eventually instituting a new energy fellowship program for students.

“We want people to know that the geology department is not just about rocks and dinosaurs,” Evans said.

This year, the department is taking advantage of the new fall break to send a group of majors, as well as the students in the “Dynamic Earth Lab and Field Methods” course, on a field trip to Canada.

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