Heading to GSA 2017!

I’m excited to be on my way to GSA in Seattle tomorrow! I’ll be making the most of my week out there. I’m presenting my work on Indian K-Pg paleoclimate, co-chairing a session on advances in paleosol proxies, and going on two soil sampling road trips with my labmate. (If we plan things right, one of those road trips will involve stopping at Voodoo Donuts in Portland for some vegan treats… #priorities)

Both my talk and our session are on Tuesday morning, and there are so many awesome sessions this year. It’s gonna be great.

PS. It looks like I’ll be attending the Gordon Geobiology conference in January too – SO PUMPED. I’m excited my research is moving more towards biogeochem!

Seattle. February 2017.


Running in grad school

How do people find time to train for ultramarathons in grad school? I can barely find the time and motivation to run three miles a few times a week, let alone start a proper training plan for the 50k I wanted to do in the spring.

That’s all. Hit me with your sage advice.

PS. I know the answer is “good time management” and “making things a priority” but… those are hard…

Year Two: The Early Months

It’s October, and the semester is in full swing. I’m teaching, taking two classes, prepping for prelims, writing a paper, and giving my first talk at GSA in less than a week(!). Suffice to say, I’ve been incredibly busy. With so much on my plate, I’ve had to get a lot better at time management over the last six weeks (has it really only been six weeks?). At the start of the semester, I would look at the huge whiteboard looming above my desk, covered in scribbled to-do lists: lab tasks. writing tasks. teaching tasks. more writing tasks. It was totally overwhelming, and I found myself ending each 10+ hour workday feeling frazzled and unsatisfied with my work. Obviously, I couldn’t keep that up for four months.

Instead of staring at a seemingly insurmountable task – “Write the India paper!” “Write the NSF grant!” – and freezing up, or procrastinating in a seriously impressive way, I began to break these huge goals down into reasonable goals, then into truly bite-sized bits. Then, every day, instead of seeing WRITE A PAPER on my to-do list, I’d see things like “Research specific topic X” or “Find more papers for supporting idea Y.” These made my goals and deadlines seem a lot more manageable as well as approachable. Seems obvious, but it took me a year to figure out.

The other key thing I changed, I think, was being realistic about what I should expect to do in a day. Teaching and taking classes really helped with this, actually, because I couldn’t allocate all day to writing or working on figures. Rather than putting eight items on an impossible to-do list, now I put more like two or three very reasonable goals. “Finish grading last week’s homework.” “Work on editing Figure 2 for the paper.” “Don’t eat all the chocolate at your desk.” (Okay, that last one is impossible, and we all know it.)

Honestly, even with these mini-goals, I still sometime work ten or eleven hours and feel like I didn’t get anything done. Part of that is because I have other, non-research time commitments, and part of it is because I’m human and my brain fizzles out after x hours of staring at a figure of precipitation over time and trying to figure out HOW TO MAKE THE GRADIENT LOOK GOOD IN ILLUSTRATOR. Some days are just better than others; the key is, as far as I can tell, hanging on for the ride.

There are two months left in this semester. Three months until my prelims paper is due; five until my oral exam. Six days until my first conference presentation. Four days until I leave for said conference. Twenty minutes until I head home for the day. Bite-sized bits of time culminating into my second year.

Soils class field trips: Wetlands and glacial features and forest soils, oh my!

As part of the soils class I’m teaching, my advisor and I planned two field trips to nearby nature/science preserves to let the students get some hands-on experience with soil fieldwork (sampling, description, etc.) as well as to look at some classic Michigan glacial geomorphological features. The first was back in September (during the outrageously hot week), and we went to the Edwin George Reserve. It’s a University of Michigan natural research station; lots of biology and ecology work gets done there. Not much has been done with the soils, though, so we made a deal with the Reserve: we were granted access as long as we shared our data. Done!

For that trip, we visited four sites: two wetlands and two forests. The students sampled soil cores, measured variables like pH and soil moisture, and got some practice identifying horizons and describing soils (they weren’t a huge fan of the Munsell color book). The main goal of this trip was to give the students real field experience collecting samples and data that they would use in the lab. Now, this was a bit of a risk, because I think we all know that labwork doesn’t always work perfectly. Which is a huge understatement. (Looking at you, finnicky ICP-OES! And you, solution that mysteriously turned cloudy and I don’t know why!) But we thought it was important to give the students a realistic, field-based science experience.


We just took our second field trip, and the weather was beautiful. For this trip, we went to another nature preserve near Chelsea, MI: the Gerald Eddy reserve (DNR operated). It was just a morning-early afternoon trip, and the students weren’t sampling (though I was!). Instead, they were taking the same field measurements as before (pH, soil moisture, compaction, and friends) and comparing the wetland values to those they’d gotten on the previous field trip. The Eddy reserve has some great glacial features, so the students spent some time identifying eskers and kettle lakes. (We also saw loads of pitcher plants, which was neat.)


OM-rich wetland soil core!

My advisor Nathan Sheldon discussing hydrologic differences between bogs and fens. The students are amazed.

You can tell they’re pitcher plants because of the way they are.

New UROP student: Sonya!

I’m so excited to say that I have a new undergraduate mentee for this year through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program! Sonya will be joining our lab and working with me on characterizing the soil chemistry of wetlands in Michigan. Her work will contribute to my ongoing project of characterizing soil orders based on iron contents, and will of course be a standalone research project. I’m pumped to get into the field and do some sampling with her! We’ll be starting with visiting some of the sites I went to with the soils class this past week, pretty close to Ann Arbor. From there, we might expand our sampling to all over the lower peninsula, and/or we might continue doing a seasonal survey of soil chemistry at these close sites.

Hooray for young women getting into STEM fields! Hooray for chemistry! Hooray for having a job that lets me hike around in the woods and get paid!

The view to one of the wetlands we sampled as part of one of our field trips for the soils class. Gorgeous day! Really, really hot. But gorgeous.

Teaching in the Tetons: What I learned

As I mentioned in my last post, teaching our summer field mapping course in Jackson, WY was my first teaching experience. Going into it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was worried that because structure isn’t my area of research, I wouldn’t be up to the task and would be unhelpful for the students. I was worried I wouldn’t be a good teacher, able to explain things clearly and help students come to understand things on their own. I was worried I wouldn’t get respect because I’m a geochemist, not a tectonics person like my co-GSI and the professors. It turns out, I was worried for no good reason.

One of my biggest goals as a GSI was to be accessible to the students. During my undergraduate experience, at field camp and in the classroom, having good GSIs always made a huge difference in how I felt about the course and geology as a whole. My favorites were the ones who never made you feel bad for asking a question, and who were open to having a discussion about whatever you brought up even if it seemed obvious, or wasn’t directly related to the material. I had always found that the be the best learning environment, and I think that’s true for most people. (No one wants to be in an intimidating, oppressive, quiet classroom.) So I wanted to be able to give my students that experience, where curiosity is natural and learning is engaging… even… fun.

I think having my first teaching experience in the field actually made it easier to work towards this goal than had I been leading a classroom discussion section, or something to that end. I thought that maybe because we were all literally at the same level – hiking up kind of steep slopes to go look at some rocks – a potential barrier was broken down, and it was easy to strike up conversations. Doing so just feels natural in the field. “Hey, look at that!” “Come check out this funky rock!” “NO DO NOT EAT THAT.” I think I was able to be open and honest enough that students really felt comfortable asking me things – and it may have actually helped that they had a non-tectonics-and-structure-expert to come to with questions that they maybe would have felt bad about asking the professor or my co-GSI. Weaknesses as strengths!

In that vein, I also learned that even if you’re not really an expert in whatever it is – in my case, structural geology – to the students, you’re still a smartypants who got into a good grad school and probably knows things. Imposter syndrome is so very real that often, we forget that even we lowly grad students are very good at what we do and that we know things. Undergrad feels so long ago that maybe we have forgotten what it’s like and what our expectations were at that stage. Teaching isn’t about knowing everything absolutely; it’s about being able to guide students through figuring things out, being able to prompt them to speak when they’re unsure and to make them think when they just want you to tell them the answer. And it’s a little bit about knowing things.

Maybe the biggest thing that I learned was that I enjoy teaching a lot more than I expected. That might be an artifact of teaching in the mountains and camping for a month, but I genuinely enjoyed interacting with the students, getting to know them better, and sharing my enthusiasm for geology.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching a class on soils with my advisor. I’ll only be leading labs, which I think will be a good transition from field to classroom teaching since there’s still such a hands-on element, rather than just me lecturing. I find working through problems with students satisfying because it shows them a little bit about how I approach and think through things, and I can get a sense of how they’re coming at it. Two minds are better than one!

So, takeaways:

  1. Field teaching is E X H A U S T I N G. We’re hiking around, running back and forth between helping people, doing geology, keeping track of people, and grading or holding office hours in pretty much all our spare time. That’s just the nature of a condensed field course like this: intense.
  2. Students react to that intensity very differently. Some kids took it and ran; others needed more hands-on help and guidance. Figuring out how to balance my time and resources to best help everyone was definitely tricky at first, but it also goes back to…
  3. Being available and accessible. Again, for a live-in, short-term course like this was, it’s easy to be available, so adjusting this to fit an in-office, classroom schedule might be challenging. But having good GSIs was so influential for me as an undergrad, so I want to be able to fill that role for these students and hopefully give them as great as an experience as I had.
  4. Having limits and a schedule is important. A little hard to enforce at field camp, but putting aside time for yourself to recuperate and refresh your brain is absolutely essential. This is something I struggled with the first semester of grad school; I was working long office days, and would go back to work at home as soon as I scarfed a mediocre meal. I got better at this last semester, but it’s always something I can work on. (With prelims impending, who knows…)
  5. And finally: I learned that some days, teaching is a fun, very rewarding experience and everyone comes back with smiles. I also learned that teaching sometimes sucks, especially if it’s the third week of field camp and you just want some time to. your. self. but you can’t get it because hey, you’re all camping and cooking together and there’s still a week left before you drive home. I’m guessing this particular issue won’t be so pressing with classroom teaching, but it’s still going to be such a big time commitment that I’m sure there will be days where I really don’t feel like leading a lab or sitting in office hours. But being there for both the good and bad days is what makes a good, helpful GSI, and that’s what I want to be.

Field camp 2017: Teaching in the Tetons

It’s been a wild month. I’m writing from a fjord in southern Norway, where I’m (finally) on vacation after teaching a four-week field mapping course around the Tetons in Wyoming. This was my first teaching experience, and I was pretty nervous going into it. As a geochemist, structural mapping isn’t exactly my tofu and potatoes, but having been out to the field sites before gave me an edge of confidence I certainly wouldn’t have had otherwise. And, as it turns out, teaching mapping in the foothills of the Tetons is pretty incredible. Exhausting, but incredible. (Here’s what I learned!)

We began the trip with a two-day caravan heading out to Colorado, where we would start our first regional field trip. Camping in Nebraska in the middle of July is unspeakably humid, and I’ll just leave it at that. Once we arrived in Colorado Springs, we loaded up on groceries and headed off into the mountains, into a decently torrential storm. Our camp was cold, wet, and (as far as some of the students were concerned) filled with bears. The next morning, though, we packed up and drove into the mountains for our first day of geology. In five days, we covered pretty much all of southwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah. The students learned how to recognize normal fault systems, paleosol floodplain sequences (thanks to me pointing out every one that we drove by), high-angle reverse faults, and so much more. We visited the Black Canyon and its stunning exposures of Precambrian basement. We listened to bizarre public radio in rural Utah. We visited Dinosaur National Monument and camped under the stars at Sheep Creek in Utah’s Flaming Gorge Recreation Area (fanning the flames of my ongoing love affair with Utah geology). It was an excellent way to kick-start field camp.

U. Michigan / UT legend John Geissman teaching the students about the 

The Black Canyon. Probably the most impressive canyon I’ve seen. It’s SO OLD.

The view from a Sheep Creek overlook on the geologic route. 

Speed-sampling Chinle Fm. paleosols for my terrestrial iron timeline.

Once in Wyoming, we wasted no time! On our first day, we were lucky enough to be able to see a paleoseismic trench that was being opened in the Teton national park for a USGS study on the Teton fault, which is still active. The trench would only be open for five days, and the USGS folks were nice enough to take an hour or two and show us what they were working on.

One of the students sketching the trench, with exposed paleosols, and discussing the project with Chris DuRoss (USGS) and Mark Zellman (FURGO consulting). We also met with Rich Briggs from the USGS.

After that, we jumped right into our first mapping project, which was meant to introduce students to measuring stratigraphic sections and get students’ rock ID skills warmed up. The rocks were all sed rocks representing transgressions and regressions, which – to some of the students’ dismay – meant rather a lot of jaking up shaley slopes. This was done near Slide Lake, which was the site of a catastrophic landslide that dammed the river, which later burst and flooded the town downstream. The hillslopes still bear evidence of this event, and looking around the valley,  it was easy to pick out marks of other, smaller slides.

Once the students had their intro to stratigraphy, we moved onto a Michigan classic: the Jurassic Red Hills in the Gros Ventre region in front of the Tetons. Here, we were mapping some basic structures (faulted anticlines!). People were a little winded – first day hiking at elevation – but the views of the distant Tetons at lunchtime made the effort worth it.

The projects got a little longer after those two introductory sites. Mapping the slopes above a segment of the Snake River was the students’ first chance to really put together what’d they’d learned and apply new skills to a more comprehensive mapping project: identifying rock units, describing lithology, identifying structures, and not getting eaten by bears or attacked by moose. (All important skills.) We lucked out and got great weather for our Wyoming work… until the end of day three. After leaving a rather exposed hillslope prematurely due to the development of some threatening clouds, we were looking at roadcuts (some of which contained huge nodules, more on that later) to round out our stratigraphy when the sky began to darken. When the first drizzles began, no one took much notice. Pretty quickly, though, the drops got bigger and hit harder. Just as we were beginning to think that we should head back soon, a car whizzed by but took the time to roll down a window and shout, “There’s crazy hail coming! You’d better get inside!” No sooner did they peel around the curve then we saw a thick grey wall hightailing down the road, straight at us. Cue everyone sprinting back to the vans, still carrying what cool rocks they could. The hail hit just as the last van door slammed shut, and we hunkered down in the parking lot for five minutes or so while we waited out the worst of it. All I could think was that I was glad I trusted my gut on the mountain and voted to head down. (I’ve been caught in a mountain storm once too much for comfort.
N = 2.) A fine way to end a project.

After that project, the students had a free day, which meant they went hiking and swimming and we (grad students) did some sampling. I drove back to the Snake River outcrops to investigate those huge nodules I’d noticed. I had actually seen them before, when I was out here for my own field camp, but I hadn’t been able to find any in place. This year, however, I located a bunch in place, situated in purple-red claystones with slickensides which I suspected of being paleosols. My first thought was that these were huge iron-rich carbonate nodules (siderite), forming in floodplains, but there was no reaction with acid. Their structure is pretty neat: not one smooth concretion, but a bunch of blebs packed together, each with its own radial internal crystal growth. I want to do XRD or something to see what it is… a future project.

IMG_8671The suspected paleosol, which I sampled for Fe analysis.

Anyway. Our next endeavor was the students’ choice, actually: either they could go camping at the tip of the Wind River range and map metamorphic rocks and banded iron formations with all-things-magnetic-legend John Geissman, or they could do a LiDAR project of a truly huge landslide with tectonics professors Marin Clark and Nathan Niemi. While LiDAR proved to be the more popular option (I guess people were sick of camping and mapping rocks), we had a great little group that headed out to the middle of Wyoming and set up camp at an idyllic site, complete with babbling brook and far away from bears. Prior to this, I had absolutely zero experience mapping metamorphic rocks, so this particular venture was as much a learning experience for me as it was for the students. It was such a fantastic trip, and I carried back literally about a hundred pounds of rocks. (My friends called it “an irresponsible amount of rocks.”) I was able to have some great conversations with John about rock magnetism and the issues with using paleosol magnetic signals and minerals, and I really enjoyed learning along with the students.

BIF !!!!!!! 

Once we parted ways with the BIF, the class left pretty immediately for a short trip through Yellowstone and the surrounding region. On this trip, we covered the history of the mantle plume and the line of Yellowstone eruptions, as well as the petrology of different basalts we came across. All in all, it was a gentle end for field camp before the long, long drive back to Michigan.


After two crazy days of driving, we reached our final campsite: Indiana Dunes State Park. Even though I’ve lived in Michigan for essentially my whole life, I’d never been out there. We were treated to a gorgeous sunset over Lake Michigan, with the lights of Chicago visible across the water. It was good to be back home after four weeks of constant work.


IMG_8504Clouds ringing the Tetons, above Teton Lake.