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Geology students, faculty showcase their work on paleontology and environmental issues

Published: October 19, 2021 Author: Staff reports

Six graduate students and four faculty members from the Ohio University Geological Sciences Department shared their research at the recent Geological Society of America annual meeting Oct. 10-13.

Five of the graduate students traveled to Portland, Arizona, to present their research in person, while another student joined remotely from Athens. Their presentations ranged from looking back at the planet's history of environmental change to looking forward to problem solving current climate issues.

“In today’s society, the negative effects of invasive species are felt around the world. Considering the prevalence of biotic invasions today, it is vital that we understand the effects of these events (in the past),” said graduate student Ian Forsythe. “The work OHIO geology researchers are conducting will help to fill gaps in our knowledge of the long-term consequences biotic invasions have on ecological communities.”

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Luke Linville and Thomas Johns doing fieldwork in a Korean wetland.

“Even as a master's student, I know that my thesis work is important and could provide additional mitigation strategies to combat climate change,” added graduate student Thomas Johns. “One of the reasons I study geology is to address real-world issues, and hopefully make meaningful change through research.”

Going public with what they've discovered

Geology graduate students spend a lot of time working with faculty mentors, conducting fieldwork, and writing their theses, so presenting at the GSA meeting allows them to take their work to a larger audience.

"Conference participation is a fundamental cornerstone of our graduate training program. Each of our graduate students is encouraged and mentored to present their graduate research in at least one national or international conference, often the Geological Society of America meeting, the American Geophysical Union, or specialty meetings in their discipline," said Dr. Alycia Stigall, professor and chair.

"Presenting their research provides a core opportunity for students to engage in scientific discourse with a broader community, develop their CV, network with potential mentors and employers, and really expand their personal knowledge beyond on-campus opportunities,” she added. “Very often students return from conferences with great feedback about their work and new ideas for how to move their own research and careers forward in exciting directions."

Research experience is a key part of the success strategy for students in the thesis-based M.S. in Geological Sciences program, as graduates generally have 100% placement in either entry-level geoscience jobs or Ph.D. programs.

"Many of our students go on to careers in environmental geology, work for geological surveys, or enter the energy sector. Students that pursue Ph.D. training are admitted to top programs around the country," Stigall said.

Much of the research that students present is the result of extensive fieldwork and time in the lab with faculty mentors.

"The master’s thesis is the core experience of the Athens M.S. Geological Sciences program. Through their thesis work, students engage in intense research over the course of two years in which they learn to develop research questions, gather and analyze data, test their hypotheses, interpret their results, and develop a formal scientific presentation and document,” Stigall said. “By working intensely through the entire life cycle of a research project, students grow into independent scientists, which provides them the foundation for either their careers or beginning a Ph.D. program."

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Ian Forsythe collecting fossil samples.

 

Looking back: Paleontology and Earth history

"One of the core strengths of the Geological Sciences Department is our paleontology and earth history research program. Geological Sciences is the home of the Paleontology Minor and teaches all of the paleontology courses at Ohio University,” Stigall said. “Our faculty are leaders in international collaborations, are editors of major journals,  and have received multiple awards for their work."

Geology faculty and students research how life on earth has changed through time, and in particular how these changes relate to shifts in environmental conditions, such as the introduction of invasive species, changes in sea level, and climate change.

"Understanding how life responds to these types of change is incredibly important for better understanding and predicting the changes related to the current changes underway in the current Earth system," Stigall said.

As an example of the impact of this work was Ceara Purcell’s GSA presentation on "Feedback loops in ecological niche evolution, dispersal, and speciation: exploring ecological niche evolution in eastern Laurentian Upper Ordovician brachiopods," which was given in an award session called “Future Leaders in Paleontology.” Purcell, who earned her M.S. in Geological Sciences in spring 2021, presented on her thesis work, which was published over the summer, with Stigall as the co-author. Her abstract was selected specifically for inclusion in the prize session via a selective process, and she was awarded a $100 prize.

"Collecting original data is a central component for every master’s thesis," Stigall added. "For some students, this data is collected in a laboratory setting, but for many Geological Sciences students, their project involves significant fieldwork. Our students conduct fieldwork in settings from local Paleozoic rocks in southern Ohio to places as remote as South Korea."

This past summer, Forsythe and Jennifer Crowell spent several weeks in the field working on exposed sedimentary rocks, Forsythe in southwestern Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky and Crowell in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia.

Crowell presented her work with Dr. Dan Hembree on "Climate-induced changes in fluvial ichnofossil assemblages of the Pennsylvanian-Permian Appalachian Basin" at the GSA meeting.

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Ian Forsythe (B.S. 2020, M.S. expected Spring 2022) gives an oral presentation on his M.S. thesis research.

 

Forsythe presented his work with Stigall on "Biotic response to the Clarksville phase of the Richmondian Invasion: a synecological perspective."

"To complete my thesis research, I have had to apply knowledge from a wide variety of courses and learn new methods as well. This has made me a more confident and independent researcher, and I feel well prepared to enter a Ph.D. program," Forsythe said. "Attending conferences like GSA is a great opportunity to share your science with others in your discipline, and a published abstract and presentation are great additions to your CV.”

Graduate student Wolf Clifton also presented at GSA. His work is on "Belemnites of the Nookscak Formation (Washington, USA) and paleogeographic implications."

Dr. Gregory Nadon, James Fox (M.S. spring 2021), and Franklin Fugitt, a collaborator with the Ohio Geological Survey, presented on "The Black Hand Sandstone Member of the Cuyahoga Formation: an early Mississippian large river deposit."

And Jonathon Waian showcased his work on "Numerical investigation and discussion of the magnetohydrodynamics of the basaltic lava flows through tubes of first order approximations of the magnetic Reynolds number and Hartmann number."

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Thomas Johns sampling wetlands in South Korea.

 

Looking ahead: Environmental geology

"Environmental geology is another core area of strength in our department. Our faculty and students are specifically targeting critical issues for modern society including water pollution, biogas emissions, and how to improve both the quality and cost-effectiveness of environmental monitoring. Luke Linville and Thomas Johns' presentations at GSA are excellent examples of this work," Stigall said.

"Their research (with Dr. Eung Seok Lee and supported by the South Korean government) involved collecting extensive water samples in a Korean wetland to both understand how greenhouse gas emissions are produced in wetland environments as well as how to accurately develop numerical models to monitor conditions in other wetlands. Protecting water resources and reducing the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change have tremendous significance for our modern world," she added.

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Thomas Johns (B.S. 2020, M.S. expected Spring 2022) at his poster showcasing his M.S. thesis research.

 

Johns and Lee presented their work in "Characterizing and modeling N20 gas dynamics in a groundwater-dependent wetland" at the GSA meeting.

"A thesis allows students to conduct real-world research that could be quite impactful for society. It is a great experience to build key writing and communication skills," Johns said. "Conferences provide opportunities to network and discover amazing research projects from top-level professionals."

Fieldwork for his thesis consisted of a six-week study in a wetland in South Korea. The goal of this work was to investigate environmental factors that influence greenhouse gas production (N2O), and how biogeochemical cycles may change under the current climate crisis.

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Luke Linville (M.S. expected Spring 2022) shares his research poster about his M.S. thesis research.

 

Linville also conducted research in South Korea.

"My fieldwork ranged from having your arm two feet deep into wetland soil during a rainstorm to typing Python code in your PJs driving across Korea,” said Linville, who presented his work with Lee on "Quantification of biogas emissions from a groundwater-dependent ecosystem through novel field and laboratory methods."

"My thesis project has given me the opportunity to learn more about the specific environments I'm interested in working in professionally,” Linville said. "Traveling to an academic conference outside the institution has given me great networking opportunities and suggestions on my project that will be incorporated before it's finalized. And it allowed me to reflect on how I plan to apply this knowledge in my future career.

“Current and future water systems will need to be evaluated, monitored, and remediated using interdisciplinary approaches,” Linville added. “Geological sciences encompass a large breadth of subjects, and its graduate studies has fostered this approach style.”

Stigall notes that the department has a third research focus: planetary geology and tectonics. "Our third branch presents at different conferences (American Geophysical Union in December or Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March), so they aren’t represented in our GSA abstract set, but our students and faculty working in these areas are also doing exciting and important research."

See all the Ohio University presentations at the GSA meeting.