Why I Want to be a Geologist

I just submitted an application for the AIPG William J. Siok Graduate Scholarship. As part of this application, I prepared an essay on “Why I Want to be a Geologist”. I am sharing that essay here because I feel that – at least for those less familiar with the joys of our wonderful fields of study – it can be pretty inspiring to hear about how scientists discover their passions.

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Machhapuchhre peak from Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC), Nepal

In his National Book Award-winning story, The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen writes of his time trekking through the landscapes of the Himalaya-Tibetan orogenic system:

“The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not.”

However, through my investigation of this system, I feel somewhat poised to proclaim that there is nothing simple about it. I cannot disagree with the narrative immediately following; however, when Matthiessen writes,

“The mountains have no ‘meaning’, they are meaning; the mountains are.”

There is something strangely alluring about mountains that I’ve been drawn to as far back as my memories reach. My appreciation likely stemmed from being geographically situated within a short distance of the Appalachians during my formative years. I enjoyed time during my youth staring off into soft blue ridges coalescing on the horizon. Later – as a teenager – I enjoyed new-found freedoms of independent travel.  I went westward, where the soft blue ridges materialized into rising rock monoliths that I hastily placed my feet upon. There began my everlasting bond to that mountainous landscape and the earth from which it formed.

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The James River near Roanoke, VA

While I continued to spend my free time in the great outdoors appreciating these geologic phenomena, I did not immediately see in geology the potential for a life’s work. Therefore, as an undergraduate with little notion of what I was seeking in a career, I simply focused my efforts on using my quantitative skills and drive to solve complex problems to position myself in a role with the potential to improve the lives of others. I was first drawn to polymer science and engineering, which I studied because I am fascinated by the physics of that class of materials and believed that improvement in practices related to end-uses could have broad societal impact. I found; however, that I did not wish to be so narrowly focused.

Therefore, I began seeking redirection and after graduation was fortuitously encouraged to participate in an NSF-funded field study directed at introducing traditionally underrepresented groups to the geosciences. I experienced disbelief when first experiencing the educational platforms afforded as a student of geology. The natural laboratories to which I was introduced included maar volcanoes, exposed laccoliths, wild gypsum caves, dinosaur footprints, and fault-block mountain ranges. I was completely blown away: not only by the variability of features; but also, the new understanding of processes that led to their formation.

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Me standing atop the Castile Formation (varved anhydrite/calcite mixed with organic matter) in the Guadalupe Mountains

Since that experience, I began to crave deeper perceptions of the natural environments which I had long enjoyed. Further, I was inspired by the realization of interdisciplinary nature of geology. This exciting revelation led me to truly submerge myself in broad geologic knowledge. I also began to see connections between my previous studies and geologic disciplines such as structure and tectonics. I, therefore, decided to tie together my interests and experiences by pursuing graduate research in continental orogenesis. In this capacity, I now study the complex, interdependent processes that result in large-scale orogen evolution as well as travel into the field to experience the world’s most magnificent features. Geology has allowed me to comprehend things I never thought possible about phenomena that I could have never imagined.

In short, I am truly inspired by my craft. It brings to me a sense of wholeness; a sense of familiarity; a sense that I have found my place. This feeling isn’t surprising considering the oft-quoted adage by John Muir:

“Going to the mountains is going home”

A Sense of Direction

Here’s a picture of me on an outcrop of rock:

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Before I explain what I’m pointing to, I thought I’d provide some context. It was Saturday morning in late September and I was on a field trip for a seminar course I’m taking this semester called “Collisional Orogenesis”. The class covers the processes involved in the evolution of mountains that form when continents collide.

We ventured out to the Tennessee and North Carolina part of Appalachian mountains to gain a field-based perspective. This area was chosen since it is the closest mountain belt that formed in this way and there are some pretty fantastic rocks. We were having a good time driving around, looking at rocks, and camping in truly beautiful places. At this outcrop, some students were unlucky enough to come in contact with stinging nettle while bushwhacking up the hillside. Don’t let that be you!

Maybe you can tell the lower rock I’m standing on differs from the darker rock above my waist. The lower rock is a sandstone and the upper rock is a shale. The sediments that make up these rocks were deposited about 600 million years ago when an ocean basin was forming during continental rifting.

After that, the continents collided resulting in the formation of Pangaea. This generated tectonic stresses that were so great these rocks became deformed. The sandstone (lower rock type) is relatively strong so most of that deformation was taken up by the weak shale layer (upper rock type). We can get a sense of direction of motion because there was a quartz pod in the shale (white blob I’m pointing to) that was rotated as the bounding layers moved past each other. Lucky us!

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Not so lucky is being attacked by yellowjackets on the way back to the vans… It’s all part of the job though, I guess.

Faculty Shadowing at Concord University: Part I

The University of Kentucky Graduate School participates in a national program called Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) that aims to introduce graduate students to the realities of faculty careers. As someone who one day seeks to serve as a member of the professoriate, I elected to participate in this program.

By association, I was recently tasked with seeking out a mentor at a higher education institution of interest in order to better understand the day-to-day responsibilities of faculty members. I reached out to Joe Allen, a structural geologist who chairs the Department of Physical Sciences at Concord University, requesting he serve as my mentor and he graciously agreed.

I chose Concord University because it is a small public university with an undergraduate focus. I don’t have much experience in this realm (myself a product of large research universities and community college). I was, therefore, excited to hear the perspectives of Dr. Allen and his colleagues.

Late last week, I embarked on my journey to Athens, WV where I was first met with what every eager career-builder seeks: my own reserved parking space.

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Reserved parking right next to the Provost.

Regarding first impressions: I suspect Dr. Allen had me visit on that early November day because he knew the collegial brick buildings with ivory trim flanked by deciduous hardwoods hanging on to myriad-colored leaves standing against the smoky blue backdrop of the Appalachians is the stuff university marketing materials are made of. Perhaps not, but the campus is quite attractive regardless.

I entered the science building which is home to Departments comprising the College of Natural Sciences, Mathematics, and Health. The building exhibits a museum-like quality with displays of taxidermied endemic animals, preserved fungi, fossil collections and the like. I found Dr. Allen’s office on the top floor. His space is shared with student workstations, one of many signs pointing to an emergent theme of close student-faculty interaction.

Dr. Allen met me after one of many meetings he’d squeezed in between his teaching commitments throughout the morning. I asked him when he’d had time to eat his lunch. He responded with “It’s sitting in the fridge”.

We headed downstairs to meet students in his structural geology lab. Most of the students were traditional sophomores. All students possessed an impressive degree of maturity and a distinctive worldly view consistent with broader-level thinking. After a brief Q&A session meant to clarify some questions from previous weeks’ lab assignments, Dr. Allen proposed a field trip to the nearby boundary of the Appalachian foreland fold-and-thrust belt. One student was wearing yet-to-be broken in field boots so the class opted for the trip.

We first headed to the ominously-designated “Bridge to Nowhere”. An unfinished section of highway in Bluefield, the area has served as Dr. Allen’s “natural laboratory” for years. Recent funding influx provided as part of West Virginia’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan threatens access to this fortuitously-located outcrop. Therefore, Dr. Allen is recruiting undergraduate research assistants to help document the geologic features exposed there using the school’s newly acquired UAV.

 

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Bluefield’s Bridge to Nowhere (source: Bluefield Daily Telegraph)

 

We stopped here and at other field stops, including an impressive fold that’s part of a regional structure. At each field stop, students took measurements of structural features and made multi-scale observations that will be added to a comprehensive report on the local structural geology. Overall, these field excursions provide a dual benefit: students get hands-on experience doing field mapping, making observations and integrating knowledge from multiple classroom-based courses and Dr. Allen has the opportunity to collect field-based data and contribute to his ongoing scholarly research.

 

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Dr. Allen (orange jacket) introduces students to the outcrop.

 

During the ride back to campus, I had the chance to chat a bit with some seriously impressive students. I met Dustin, who had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of music, film, and literature and Jazz, who asked piercing questions like what my impression was regarding themes in socio-economic affairs in the Appalachian region. The student benefit from focusing on quality teaching in undergraduate courses became abundantly clear. Students produced by Concord University are no doubt set up for successful careers in the geosciences and beyond.

Stay tuned for more on my visit.

 

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Jazz provides scale for a block of rock that fell from the outcrop. The radiating pattern is called plumose structure and shows the propagation of extensional brittle fracture.

 

 

Meeting of the Minds

20171026_132307A few weeks ago, I headed out to Seattle, WA to attend the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA). The GSA Annual Meeting is held each fall and is one of the largest national conferences for geologists. I attended another one of these meetings back in 2015; however, at that time I wasn’t as fully submerged in geological study (I was transitioning into geology from engineering). Therefore, this year’s event was much more meaningful. For one thing, this was my first time presenting my research to a national audience.

I did this in the form of a scientific poster. It is standard procedure at these meeting for geologists to gather in the conference center’s exhibit hall after the day’s formal technical oral presentations. Here, meeting attendees enjoy adult beverages and chat with other researchers about work that interests them. During my session, I met many geoscientists, from undergraduates with very little exposure to my particular field of study to some of the sub-discipline’s leading experts. Many engaged me in spirited discussion and some even posed questions for consideration that I hadn’t thought of myself. I learned quite a bit and was excited to share my project with the community at large.

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Explaining my poster to conference attendees (photo courtesy of Edward Lo

In addition to presenting my own work, I was able to see what other researchers in my field are up to of late. Conferences are particularly useful for getting a more immediate idea of where scientists are heading with their projects since presentations don’t undergo quite as rigorous (and lengthy) review processes. I particularly enjoyed sessions dedicated to “Challenges in Tectonics”, which resulted from community input to a document meant to direct research funding. It was exciting to see how our discipline is evolving.

Meetings like this are also a great venue for building networks, visiting with colleagues from other institutions and even finding future collaborators. One of the more interesting networking events I attended was the On To the Future (OTF) Alumni Reception. OTF is program meant to increase diversity in the geosciences by providing funding for students to attend their first GSA Annual Meeting. During the reception, a very inspiring speech was given by the 2017 Bromley Award for Minorities winner, Aradhna Tripati. Dr. Tripati emphasized the importance of perseverance and encouraged audience members to speak more openly about challenges faced due to cultural and social inequalities that still exist within our institutions.

I was also fortunate to visit with several friends and colleagues with which I’ve developed relationships over the past few years. I was especially excited to have lunch with professors and a fellow student from the Border to Beltway program. This program was designed to introduce students traditionally underrepresented in the geosciences to the discipline and it was during this program I feel I really emerged as a geologist.

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Border to Beltway affiliates (photo from B2B Facebook page)

Overall, I had a really great time and I look forward to attending future events. If there is a meeting like this one for a topic that you find interesting I encourage you to attend!

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Partaking in some post-conference sight-seeing (Space Needle)

 

 

A World Inside a Computer

Blog2Last year, at the start of my graduate education, I was given the assignment of describing my research (or what I thought it would be at that somewhat premature point) using only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language.

This assignment was inspired by a web comic that attempted to recreate a blueprint of the Saturn V rocket using this simplified language. Following the publication of that comic, the Up-Goer Five text editor was created and subsequently, the Ten Hundred Words of Science Challenge was born. The challenge led scientists from virtually all disciplines to create jargon-free descriptions of their projects.

While perusing some of these descriptions, I found one that really resonated with me. I’ve copied that entry below. It is by Matthew Hoyles on computer simulation:

“Some people learn by trying things out. Some people learn by thinking very hard. I make a world inside a computer the way people think the world works, and then try things out, to see if we are thinking right.”

In the first sentence, we are told that “some people learn by trying things out”. The people to which he is referring are experimentalists – or scientists who derive information by conducting physical experiments. This is the type of science you’ve probably tried your hand at during high school or undergraduate laboratory courses.

The second sentence tells us that “some people learn by thinking very hard”. These people are the theorists or those that develop abstract ideas about the universe. Albert Einstein is best known for his work constructing theories.

The two types are united when experimentalists design and conduct tests for the ideas proposed by theorists. There are, of course, people that do both as well as people that do science that is somewhere in between the two broad categories.

In the last sentence, the author states that he makes “a world inside a computer the way people think the world works”. In other words, he uses a computer to develop a model, or simplification of reality that can readily be constructed on that machine, based on what has already been observed and interpreted through other means. The model is used to “then try things out”. This is analogous to physical experimentation. The results of these simulations can either support or contradict a particular theory.

In my opinion, the power of computer simulation comes from this unique ability to simply “try things out”.  Often, experimentalists are limited in their ability to observe physical phenomena and theorists in their ability to predict the outcome of scenarios that might involve many interacting factors. So by performing experiments via computer simulation greater opportunities are afforded.

For example, in my own work, I think about things that happen deep in the ground over millions of years. No human being has been around long enough to observe what happened 50 million years ago and we don’t have the ability to travel 100 km into the Earth to directly see what’s going on. Additionally, to accurately describe how a mountain forms, one must consider an entire complex system.  For example, mountains grow when rocks get pushed together and thrust upward but that growth is limited by things like erosion at the surface. Also, the way the rock responds to these forces changes over time and isn’t the same everywhere in the Earth.

But by using computer simulations, I have the ability to construct models that account for those complexities based on what can be observed and then extrapolate (in both time and space) as well as vary how my unknowns are defined. I can then determine what works best and what makes the most sense. If all goes well, I hope that one day I might be able to “see if we are thinking right”.

Welcome to Orogeny Odyssey!

Welcome to my blog, Orogeny Odyssey.

Trekker on the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Regarding the name: it’s likely that you’ve heard of an odyssey, and perhaps read the very famous epic poem by Homer with which it shares a name. An odyssey is basically an adventurous journey. However, it’s less likely that you’ve heard of an orogeny. An orogeny is simply a geologic process that results in the formation of mountains. Combining these two ideas gives an essence of my passions and what I hope to share with you through this blog.

As a geology student, I use different techniques to study the dynamics of interacting tectonic plates, or broken up pieces of the outermost layer of the Earth. I’m especially interested in what happens when continents collide and form mountains, like the Himalaya in Asia. To gain a better understanding of the interactions, I’ve begun to travel to mountain ranges to collect samples and make observations. I then combine my field studies with numerical methods (computer simulations) and laboratory techniques.

I chose to study this subject because I find it absolutely fascinating. The complexity of interactions and the broad range of methods involved in understanding orogenesis as well as other geologic phenomena is simply awe-inspiring for me. By sharing my experiences as well as providing some basic geologic context, I hope to inspire some awe within you as well.