GSA 2011, here we come!

August 15th, 2011

Just a quick note to say that undergraduate research in the G&G department will be WELL represented at the Geological Society of America 2011 Annual Meeting.   Nicole, Rhi, Kristie, Casey and Britt will be presenting their research in the Sigma Gamma Epsilon Undergraduate Research Poster Session, and Cat will be presenting her work in South Dakota in the session titled “Potentially Toxic Elements in the Environment: A session for Students.”

Gotta be proud of these students. I know I am.

First days in Japan: Reflections on Nagasaki

August 12th, 2011

Immediately following my travel back from Washington D.C., I found myself on a plane to Japan. As part of a rather substantial grant awarded through ASIANetwork, myself and three other students (plus one faculty mentor) were provided an opportunity to conduct research on varying topics in Nagasaki. As the ASIANetwork website sums up our projects well (forgiving a slight mistake when reporting what I assume to be graduation years):

“Mentor, Marjorie Rhine, Department of Languages and Literatures

Heather McFarlin, ’11 and Rhiannon LaVine, ’11, “Spatial and Temporal Variations of Volcanic Materials at Mt. Unzen, Kyushu, Japan”

Scott Nussbaum, ’13, “Mapping Nagasaki for Digital Representation in a Computer Game”

Monica Wilson, ’11, “Ethnic Expression and Identity on the Urban Landscape: A Cross Cultural Comparative of China Towns in Nagasaki, Japan and San Francisco, U.S.A.”

Four students from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater will be engaged in three very different projects during their three week stay in the Nagasaki/Shimabara region of Japan. Heather McFarlin and Rhiannon LaVine, both geology students, will study the spatial and temporal variations in mineralogical and geochemical compositions throughout the slope of Mt. Fugen, the highest peak of the Unzen group of highly dangerous volcanic mountains. Collected data will be taken back to their home campus for analysis in order to determine the relative time and type of volcanic activity in this area. Scott Nussbaum will carefully photograph the city of Nagasaki and collect a library of sounds, and also develop an archive of relevant facts, historical and otherwise, that can be utilized by him to create a video game based on Nagasaki. Monica Wilson plans to study the configuration of the China Town in Nagasaki for later comparison with the China Town in San Francisco in order to explore the ways in which space shapes and is shaped by the identity of its’ inhabitants. She seeks to discover how neighborhood layout, architecture and urban design, economic ventures, and community and recreational resources can provide a wealth of knowledge about the identity of those who call the space home.”

The day of travel was rough on all of us. We were relieved once we landed in Fukuoka and made our way to the night’s lodging. The following day we took a train to Nagasaki, the city in which we will spend the majority of our time.

Situated in the heart of the city, blocks away from the harbor, we are no more than a few streetcar stops from anything that may catch our interests. Despite a prime location, I wouldn’t call Nagasaki a very “happening” city. Compared to the trendy, bustling metropolis of Tokyo or the gritty genesis of hip culture that is Osaka, Nagasaki is rather tame. It has its charm in its foreign-influenced history (evident in much of its architecture), but it is not the place to go if you’re looking for the infamous Japanese contemporary cool.

As it is very much reliant on its unique history as a port city for its tourism industry, many of the sights are geared toward the exotic. There are old Christian churches, Chinese-styled temples, a Dutch trading post; all of which are rooted in its Portuguese founding in the 16th century.

Obviously, much of the tourism comes from people who want to see one of the cities that was devastated by the atomic bomb. Our arrival in Nagasaki, August 9th, coincided with the 66th anniversary of the incident. In order to take part in the commemoration, we made a point to visit the hypocenter, Peace Park, and the Atomic Bomb Museum. None of the spots were overly crowded, and their visitors were solemn. Many visitors to Japan note that they feel out of place in the country (a foreigner usually sticks out like a sore thumb). While I’d be lying if I said that I never felt that way at all, I usually don’t feel nearly as out of place as some. This is a direct result of the fact that I did spend some time living here and have gotten used to the lifestyle. Though on that day in Nagasaki, as a foreigner (moreover, as an American), I did feel more out of place than usual. I wasn’t treated or regarded any differently by the Japanese, I just felt separated. It was as if I was on the other side of the fence solely because history dictated it as such. It was a sort of guilt that had its origin wholly in my own mind. Walking through that museum and visiting those sites induced the phrase “This should not have happened” to be repeated in my head.

Disgust, guilt, sadness…but above all else, remembrance.

I’ve always held rather strong opinions on the use of nuclear weapons, especially the use of them during WWII. Visiting those sites only served to solidify those opinions.

The experience affected us all, drawing out tears in some as we walked past physical representations of the memories and remnants of the devastation. In addition to the above, Nica has written the following to express her own reaction:

“On August 9, 1945 at 11:02 AM, the atomic bomb “fat man” detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. It was the second and (to date) last time nuclear weapon was used in an act of war. On August 9, 2011, I was able to visit the site of this devastating tragedy along with 3 of my fellow students, my professor at whitewater and her 13 year old daughter. It’s hard to imagine that the site had been a mass of wreckage, devastation, and literally hell on earth not even a century ago. At the hypocenter of the impact stands a pillar monument, which on this day was laden with thousands upon thousands of cranes in honor of the victims who died and suffered after that day.

The hypocenter monument is a small part of a larger complex that includes the Nagasaki peace park (where you will find the peace fountain), peace statue, Atomic Bomb museum, and the National Peace Memorial Hall. It’s a peaceful, albeit sombering, experience to stroll through the expansive parks and appreciate the quiet solitude and beautiful gardens.

Most sombering though, had been the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum itself does a fine job of explaining the events that led up to the use of the bomb, the development of the bomb, and how the bomb worked. Even as we walked through the halls show casing the devastating effects of the bomb (melted glass bottle chunks, singed and torn clothing, the burning of skin, development of keloid scars, etc), there was a very neutral tone to the museum. They were not trying to place blame, and placing blame or rationalizing the event is not really the point of the museum. The point of the museum was to bring to light the long-lasting devastation of the use of atomic bombs and to promote the de-armerment of nuclear weapons while promoting peace.

Yet, as an american, I could not escape from the overwhelming guilt of knowing that my people, a major part of my personal identity, were responsible for this. Everything i felt came from something internal, from seeing the melted clay that replaced three cremated children, the twisted and broken environment, and the personal stories of tragedy shared on the museum walls, and knowing that it was the USA who did that. It’s impossible to escape from a sense of responsibility and wrong doing when you know that.

At the same time, I left the museum feeling as if I needed to fight against the use of nuclear weapons. That I could add another voice in support of nuclear dearmerment across the globe.

The museum is working towards a goal of ever-lasting peace, and I left the museum feeling like that was the only way to make up for past mistakes.”




















The clock that stopped due to the blast at 11:02 a.m.













The hypocenter. Note the bundles of colorful origami cranes draped over racks on either side of the monument. These cranes decorated every bit of memorial statuary.




















More cranes.













High school students at the hypocenter.













A sculpture depicting the suffering caused by the bomb.












Our group at Peace Park.


A more uplifting post next time, I promise.


(Photos courtesy of Marjorie Rhine and Nica Wilson.)

Research Symposium – check!

August 4th, 2011

The research symposium was great. I talked to a lot of people and made some rather good connections.













As I already spouted off about leaving in my previous post, I’ll leave this one short. Needless to say, some of the goodbyes that were said today threatened to be teary ones.


The Beginning of the End

August 2nd, 2011

My tenure at the Museum of Natural History is quickly coming to an end. The specimens that I used are put away, the literature that I pulled has been put into a neat pile, and my poster is in queue for its printing appointment tomorrow. I’ll change a few things on it before GSA (namely include a matrix and get rid of some of the things aimed at a general audience), but it’ll stay the same for the most part. We worked on this project until the very last minute and I do believe that it was well worth it (as always). A little after 5 p.m. today, I unplugged my laptop, packed up my bag, and pushed in the chair at my desk—for the last time, I realized…

…it was rather sad.

I do go into the museum tomorrow to pick up my poster and probably talk to my adviser a bit, but it’ll be the first time that I’m not setting up shop in the office. It’ll be weird.

I’ve met so many awesome people, done so many amazing things, [eaten so many wonderful cupcakes], and learned so much this summer—I really don’t know how to end it with a worthy closing statement. I guess that I’m just completely thankful to have had this opportunity.












Thursday is the day that we present our posters and the symposium, Friday we have our exit interviews, and Saturday I’ll be back in Wisconsin…

…for a day. Then I’m off to Japan for 3 weeks—a point that marks the transition to a new tag on these blog posts!


Mysteries of ductile shear zones

July 28th, 2011

I have to talk a little bit about my primary research project: how rocks deform deep (>10 km) underground.

Rocks as we see them are solid, hard objects.  They might shatter if you hit them with a hammer just right.  This, however, is only true if you are hitting the rock on the surface of the earth where the temperature and pressure are relatively low, and if you are using a lot of stress (impact) over a very short period of time.  Whenever those two conditions are not met, say, for example, deep underground, where the pressure and temperature are higher than surface conditions, and/or if slow-acting tectonic forces keep acting on the rocks over millions of years, then the rocks don’t get to shatter or crack. They act like silly putty or clay.  They either bend into folds, or get squeezed/stretched out depending on the nature of the forces acting on them.

Ductile shear zones, or shear zones for short are narrow bands in rocks where otherwise solid, rigid rocks somehow got stretched/squeezed like silly putty.  Those zones usually form deeper in earth’s crust and mantle, and therefore we don’t get to see them form until the rocks get exposed to the surface.  Some geophysicists think shear zones in the upper mantle play a huge role in all the effects of plate movements like earthquakes, mountain building or formation of new oceans that we see on the surface of the earth.  The funny thing is, no one has figured out yet exactly how those shear zones form to begin with. This is the primary focus of my research.  Right now I got Britt and Casey working with me in studying a shear zone that formed about 1800-2000 million years ago in what is northern Wisconsin today. Our field area is near Mountain, Wisconsin.  2000 million years ago there was indeed a mountain there, probably taller than today’s Rocky Mountains.  Today all we get to see are the roots of that mountain, and of course, the shear zones that formed during or just after the mountain was being built.

Different rocks have different minerals, and every mineral act differently when the squeeze is on, so to speak.  Some minerals are stronger than others and those will keep their shapes while other minerals change shape in response to applied forces.  Some mineral grains will rotate to align themselves better with the direction of applied forces.  All these makes for fascinating studies in figuring out the conditions under which the rocks got deformed… the temperature-pressure conditions, whether there was some fluids involved in the process, etc. etc.

Our current project is based on looking at the rocks from the Mountain Shear Zone under a petrographic microscope, chemically analyze them using X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) and X-Ray Diffraction (XRD)… we have also used the ICP-OES at the Chemistry department for some really interesting look at the Rare Earth Elements in those rocks.  Besides chemistry, we are also using GIS to measure the degree of alignment of the different minerals as a proxy to measure the amount of shear stress it took to align the minerals just so.

I will post photomicrographs from thin sections and field photos of Mountain Shear Zones as we delve into the 2011 field season.  I’m excited about getting back to looking at these rocks with Casey and Britt.



July 19th, 2011

Over the years, one of the most common questions that I receive about doing field research (=collection of specimens) is “Do you just go up to a place and start picking up specimens?” In a word, “sometimes”, but usually one has to get permission from some entity first. I and my research students this year have all had to get permission of some kind in order to collect our specimens.

Rhi and Adric had to collect very different specimens in Nevada (250 million year old marine gastropods vs. 13,000 year old freshwater gastropods, respectively), but both sampling sites are on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. In 2009, Congress passed the Omnibus Public Lands Act, which contained a section entitled Paleontological Resources Preservation (OPLA-PRP), which among many, many other regulations, stipulates the need for permits for the collection of vertebrate fossils. For the IN-vertebrates (such as those studied by Rhi and Adric), no specific permit is required, although it is expected that the scientific collector informs the appropriate regional office of the BLM before work begins. I’ve been collecting in Humboldt County, Nevada for many years and I’ll always make the call sometime before we head out.





Kristie’s collections of Recent freshwater gastropods in Wisconsin are partially from within the Mukwonago River State Natural Area. Since 2005, a small (~40 acre) site enclosing a critical part of the Mukwonago River has been designated SNA #417. We had to file a joint permit request (approved!) with the Wisconsin DNR in order to remove any living or dead biological remains from the area. This type of permit lasts for a period of 1 year, and a final report of all of our findings must be filed with the WI DNR upon completion of the year. In addition, all collected and preserved specimens must be placed within an approved scientific repository for future researchers to have access. Ours will ultimately be added to the Mollusc collections of the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM), which has a long history of receiving such collections.

Nicole’s fossil vertebrates are from a privately owned and currently active rock quarry in Oklahoma. Dolese Brothers is one of the largest quarrying companies in the southwestern United States, and for safety (and litigation) reasons they simply cannot allow anyone to just go into a quarry at any time and collect. After several years of inquiring and courting the company, we finally secured permission from Dolese Brothers to enter the Richards Spur Quarry near Lawton, OK.  Collection privileges are for one day only, and we must have a company representative accompany us at all times. We’ll take that deal any day!

Three different entities – federal, state and private – and three different levels of permission. Important experiences for undergraduate research students.


Checking in

July 16th, 2011

At this point in my project, I’m playing around with different methods to analyze the collected data. I’ve translated my Mesquite matrix to a MacClade matrix so that it’s more compatible with StrataPhy, a program that incorporates stratigraphic data into a cladistic analysis. The drawback is that this is a very slow program (given that it does include the stratigraphic data) and it’s a bit odd to handle. The upcoming week will be spent figuring things out on my own as my adviser is in Australia until next Tuesday. Thankfully if I run into any issues, Gene is right down the hall and acts very well as a stand-in adviser.

Altogether, I coded for 29 taxa within the Knightites genus with ranges from the Lower Pennsylvanian to the Lower Triassic—this includes the Retispira, Knightites, and Cymatospira subgenera. I did go ahead and code an extra species, an Upper Mississippian Patellilabia, to be used as an outgroup if necessary (really, that just makes the program run much more quickly). I’ll run it with and without the outgroup to see if there are any significant differences. Currently I’ve only done small test runs with MrBayes and StrataPhy, producing several preliminary trees. So far, even within the test runs, some really interesting (and consistent) clades have been popping up. On the other hand,  the Retispira group really is a monster of a polyphyletic mess—one of which I cannot sufficiently tease apart during my stay here. We’ll see how it changes (if at all) when I do complete runs next week.

In short, I’m still goin’ strong!














Back from the field: what next?

July 13th, 2011

Recently one of my colleagues asked me “How come YOU are working on a project on groundwater pollution?”

Good question.

So far nothing in my academic background or research experience has ever dealt with groundwater issues, pollution, or anything remotely associated with the question we are addressing in Pine Ridge.  At Pine Ridge, we are dealing with volcanic ash layers, not igneous or metamorphic rocks.  The layers are mostly undeformed, not folded or sheared.  The rocks in question are only about 30-40 million years old, not Precambrian.  Even the field techniques we had to use for sampling are very different from the ones I usually follow.

So how come I’m not only working on this problem, but with the help of Cat actually succeeding to get some good data? I think the answer lies not so much in the topic of research but how someone approaches a research question.  No matter what discipline someone specializes in, some essential skills, like critical thinking skills, data organization, analysis and synthesis skills, the ability to see the “bigger picture”… etc. are common in all fields of scientific research.  Add to that a capable, willing and hard working undergraduate student like Cat who is passionate about the project, and mentoring any research project is a breeze.

The passion has to be there, though.  Stereotypically scientists are pictured as dispassionate, as if in order to be objective, one must get rid of all emotions.  Based on my experience I have to disagree with that picture.  I don’t think anyone can willingly invest the hours spent in front of a computer, in the lab or in the field without a passionate drive to understand the different facets of a research question.  As long as the driving passion for a specific outcome does not overshadow the scientific process, I’d have to say that passion is a good asset for research scientists.

So now that we are back from the field, what next? Cat has done some ICP-OES analysis on her water samples for uranium, barium and arsenic.  The results are intriguing, and we need more samples to see for sure what is going on.  The drinking water samples do not show unusually high levels of uranium, which is a relief, but the surface water samples do, and as surface water and groundwater interact with each other, we really need to analyze more samples to see the extent and mechanism(s) of uranium contamination.  I am hoping Kat Converse might be able to send us some more samples… we will see.  Meanwhile Cat will keep working on the GIS map.


Long weekend, short post

July 5th, 2011

The holiday weekend came and went—the District became an absolute nuthouse. My dad flew out from Wisconsin to visit for the weekend. Despite the crowds, I was determined to show him some great sights. We toured the museums (utilizing my discount where possible) and memorials, capping the weekend on the lawn of the Lincoln Memorial to watch the fireworks.

















Aside from the excessive walking in intolerable heat/humidity, we had a great time. I’m glad that he made it out here!

As for my project: barring any gross mistakes, the data collection is finished. Now we’re waiting on a method to analyze said data.



Back to Whitewater

July 3rd, 2011

Cat and I got back from our South Dakota-Nebraska trip on Friday, July 1.  It was a tremendous journey in every sense of the phrase.  We got a ton of work done, made some lasting connections with the land and the people, and of course, there was the feeling of satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that our work will be useful for the community there.

This is one of the main reasons I love geology.  With my background in structural geology I can explore purely scientific questions or I can try to apply my research for helping others.  My research on Precambrian shear zones in granitic rocks fall in the first category… I am fascinated by the processes that make solid rocks behave like silly putty under high pressure-temperature and low strain rates deep within the crust and mantle.  To non geologists, however, that trend of inquiry seems irrelevant.  On the other hand, my current research 0n uranium contamination in drinking water gets everyone’s attention.  People can relate to the problem.  They care.

Our field work is over for now.  We brought back as many samples as we could, and now we get to analyze them and plot the data on GIS.  We will see what our data tells us.