Welcome to the blog for the Oberlin College Geomorphology Research Group. We are a diverse team of students working with Amanda Henck Schmidt on geomorphology questions. This blog is an archive of our thoughts about our research, field work travel notes, and student research projects. Amanda's home page is here.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Dominica, Post Hurricane Maria

Hi All,

It has been a very adventurous, very busy, and very exciting month for me. My name is Melinda and I’m an undergraduate from the University of Vermont where I work in the Cosmogenic Nuclide Laboratory. How did I end up in Dominica? Here’s a little story:

In the fall semester, I was working on improving the methodology of extracting Beryllium-10 from olivine. Acid dissolution had some complications, so my research advisor, Paul Bierman, suggested flux fusion. However, we flux in a batch of 16 (where one is a blank), so 14 Dominica samples (pre-Maria) were added to this batch.

Soon after the world entered 2018, I received this fabulous opportunity to collect samples at the rivers in Dominica for post-Hurricane Maria data (thank you Amanda and Paul!). Fun fact: I love looking at extreme weather events and have a small dream to chase storms like the tornado chasers in the movie, Twister. In this two-week notice I had to prep for my first trip ever out of the country. I started my journey solo to Barbados at 5:30am. Waiting for the Oberlin fellows, I was able to see sea turtles, crystal blue waters, and be on an insane taxi ride (I’m originally from NYC so these taxis were a new rush). Only at almost midnight is when I met the other 3/4ths of the field team – Amanda, Marcus, and Ely (who I have never met until then). The next day, we headed to Dominica.

“Wow” is the one word I decided on to describe the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the hot, humid 80-degree weather with random rainstorms (which we were fortunately in the car or sheltered for the most part) we sieved at about 7-10 sample locations per day. How much I wished I saw pre-hurricane Dominica instead of having to just hear about the vast differences in landscape! There were many landslides and many rivers we sampled at carved a new channel and/or increased in discharge. The views were great, roads were cleared of debris (even though we got lost a few times), the rivers kept us cool, and chicken never failed us as a food.

This is the place we stayed at where we had to walk through a river .

In the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, this trail was covered by fallen trees. However, they have made great progress in cleaning up.

Emerald Pool in the national park.
During the last night of late night packing and organizing, I took a small portion of the samples that I needed – the ones that matched the sample locations and grain sizes of the pre-hurricane samples I used. Once I returned to Vermont, I went straight to work on extracting meteoric Be-10 in 2 weeks (in order for my samples to be analyzed on time). Fortunately, I don’t need very much of each sample, but I had to dry, sieve a few samples, and powder everything before I could flux. Between classes and work, I was (and still am) in the lab working on extracting Be-10 and drying them to pellets. Very soon, my samples pre- and post- Maria will be sent to the accelerator mass spectrometer in Livermore, California to be analyzed.

It has been a whirlwind from initially working with olivine to now working with Dominica samples, which I will be incorporating into my honors thesis. The beryllium isotope data I will receive will help understand sediment movement and erosion rates on Dominica. It will also be super exciting to compare the isotopes pre- and post-Maria!

One more fun fact: sieves caused a lot of trouble through security in my carry-on than the sand samples.

A sneak peak of the meteoric lab and the flux fusion method used. The crucibles hold the sample and the addition of KHF2 and NaSO4 lower the melting point such that the sample can be fluxed.

Here’s to great opportunities and meeting new people~


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Dominica Round 2

Hello Everyone,

Marcus here, and this will be my recounting of another eventful winter-term project. As mentioned in Ely’s post, we went back to Dominica for post hurricane Maria sampling. In preparation for the trip I worked on mapping any visible landslides from satellite imagery available after the storm. I was able to spot well over 500 in the regions of the island that weren’t covered in clouds. Im sure if I had clearer pictures I’d be able to find another 500. The good news was that they seemed to be mostly small, not affecting huge swaths of land.  The bad news was that even though landslides didn’t move that much earth, the island still was catastrophically affected. As I was searching for anywhere which could’ve been hit by a mass-wasting event I noticed large areas of bare and downed trees. I didn’t really know what to make of that, but I figured it was important and marked it down anyway.

Dark brown regions indicate lots of downed/bare trees while the red/black dots & points are landslides. Much of the eastern portion of the island satellite imagery was blocked by clouds.

Going back was truly a wild experience from start to finish, especially because we didn’t know if it was happening until December, and even still, nothing was set in stone until almost two weeks before we left! Obviously, its very hard to complain about leaving the oh-so-warm Ohio January for an island in the Caribbean, but this wasn’t just a vacation. We were working. Hard. The trip started with us leaving for the Cleveland airport at 4:30AM on Thursday, Jan 18th, and ended with us returning at midnight, Friday, Jan 26th. There was tons to do everyday, the first three days were dedicated to sampling. We had 31 unique locations to go to all across the island, and from each we wanted around 3-4kg's of sand. Our final day was spent organizing the mess and preparing it for the four flights home. Have you ever checked 350lbs worth of '''soil''' through three different customs offices? Its an exciting time for all parties involved.

The trip itself was very bittersweet. On one hand, it was amazing to be able to go backthis information is really unique in that we rarely ever have the before data for serious natural disasters. On the other hand, just seeing what the storm did to the island was breath-taking in every sense of the word.

Before                                                                          After

Both sets of photos are from one of the main natural attractions on the island, Trafalgar falls. I really can’t describe what being there in person was like after being there over the summer, it was surreal. I’d seen pictures right after the storm on Facebook, but the gravity of the situation really just isn't the same unless you’re there.

After the storm, 2018 on the left - Before the storm, 2017 on the right. (its wrong, i know, i know)
This is another sample site, the pictures are harder to compare but that’s largely because the shape of the channel evolved so much after the storm. As seen in the before picture, the water is very shallow and easily navigable. To go to that same spot in the after picture would’ve put me in over my head.

And scenes like this were common in most of the streams we sampled. It was a complete 180 from what we observed over the summer. Being there in person really put into perspective what I was seeing from the satellite imagery, and the magnitude of the hurricane. These trees didn't look anything like those that I saw over the summer, instead they were like something out of Horton Hears a Who.

And then there was the toll on buildings..
The location where the KECK group stayed at over the summer.

But overall, it was a successful trip, it was and still is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. We stayed at a variety of places across the island and had the luxury of waking up to views like these.

Which makes it that much easier to spend the whole day collecting sand. In total, we wrangled almost 400lbs of wet sediment from 20+ different rivers and streams across the island. We are hoping to use the gammaspec in the lab to understand how these water systems are sourcing material across the island. Now that we have two sets of data, we are also trying to understand what a massive storm like Hurricane Maria does to erosion in general on the island. This specific question will be one of the primary focuses of my honors project. I think another big portion will be a comparative analysis of before-and-after’s for the locations we sampled. As I showed in those initial pictures, so much has changed.

Since we’ve been back Ely and I have had the enormous task of preparing the samples to be analyzed. That means moving every particle of sand from the bag we packed it in into another bag to be autoclaved (a fancy way of sterilizing it) and then dried again. Luckily, we don’t need to dry all of it, just enough for us to keep here, and we can ship the rest of the wet stuff to Melinda at the University of Vermont. We also had some issues with sample collection in the field that we figured we could take care in the lab, so there’s been a fair amount of sieving going on in the Oberlin College Geology department. It was such a fun activity to do for 3 straight days in Dominica that I’m glad we get to do it here too!!! In all honesty, it wasn’t bad; it’s a pretty monotonous task but it goes by fairly quickly.  Now that we’ve got what we need all of the samples have been repacked and will soon be en route to Vermont. The last thing to do is tidy up the lab before everyone else arrives and sees the mess Ely and I have made of it.

As the data is time locked behind 24-hr run cycles through our gamma-spectrometer it’ll be somewhat slow going at first, but I hope to see some initial results within the next couple weeks. I’d like to try and post updates to this blog more consistently in the coming two semesters, as a way to track my progress as well as keeping me on track, with Amanda’s approval of course.

I’ve also been working with Jason Williams and his STEM based initiative, Get With the Program, more and more recently, but as this post is already so long I’ll post some updates for that in a little while.

Until next time,


Also just a fun picture of the trail to one of our bed-n-breakfast locations. We had to cross a knee-deep river by headlamp light in the pitch black. It wasn't too dangerous or anything, there was a safety rope if we needed it.

Winter Term Recap

Hi, This is Ely,

I wrote on the blog earlier this fall, talking about the beginning of my journey as a research assistant in the geomorph lab. I’ve been working with Marcus on his Dominica KECK research project. Over the summer, Marcus was able to travel to Dominica in order to collect river sediment samples. Since the start of fall, I’ve been helping Marcus with running these samples in HARBIN and the XRD.

After Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean, Amanda noticed that we had the rare opportunity to collect post-hurricane sediment samples from the same locations that they were collected in the summer, before the hurricane. We set a date to head back to the island during winter-term.

Before leaving for Dominica, I spent time looking into software that would better allow us to identify the composition of our samples from the data the XRD provided. Up until now, we’ve been trying to do this using d-spacing charts and sifting through extensive lists of elements and minerals hoping for a match. However, the software we are using should supposedly do this for us in a matter of seconds. The programs we are using are Match! 3 and MAUD. Match! 3 is what we use to identify likely minerals within our samples. It looks through an index of thousands of known minerals and their XRD data sets, trying to fit each one to ours. One issue is that our samples are mixtures of many different minerals, and Match! 3 tries to fit a single mineral to our entire XRD data set. We can combat this by taking many minerals off of Match! 3’s candidate list, as well as data for minerals that make sense with the geological history of Dominica. We throw all of these into MAUD, which makes a custom diffractogram using Rietfveld refinement. It’s really a process of trial and error, adding in likely minerals, and removing them if MAUD can fit them onto our sample data.

Using Match! 3 to analyse DM-6.

In order to take a break from working in the lab, Monica Dix (a fellow lab mate) and I toured the perimeter of Lake Erie. We headed east to Detroit, the through Windsor, ON, and drove all the way to Niagara Falls before heading back to Oberlin. Along the way, we tried stopping at as many tourist spots as we could, including a Lake Erie history museum in Detroit, lighthouses, the Great Lakes history museum in Cleveland, and of course, Niagara falls. This was a great road trip, as I was able to see parts of the lake that I never had before, and despite it being winter, the views were spectacular.

Before too long, it was time to leave for Dominica. Amanda, Marcus and I were joined by Malinda Quock from UVM. Day 1 on the island consisted mainly of flying in from Barbados and searching for our Airbnb. The home we were staying at had a beautiful view of Dominica’s capital, Roseau. After settling in, we were able to get in one sample site.

View over Roseau,
 A mother-son pair of dogs that hung out on the property we were staying at,
 Image 3: the view from our first sample site

The following days were spent rushing from sample to sample trying to get as many in as possible before sunset. Marcus and Amanda provided interesting commentary for each site, remembering what they looked like during the summer, prior to the damage inflicted by the hurricane.

Caption: One of our sites was clogged by woody debris most likely as the result of Hurricane Maria.

                                                         Caption: One of our more beautiful sites was Trafalgar Falls

When heading back home, we had to connect to Fort Lauderdale through Barbados, which meant a day full of crystalline beaches. Our Airbnb host, John, was very hospitable while we stayed with him and gave us a tour of Barbados. We had some delicious coconuts, and I swam in an ocean for the first time.

Now that we’re back on campus, Marcus and I have been sorting and sieving the samples we didn’t quite get to while out in the field. We are preparing some for leaching, and some will be shipped to Malinda at UVM.

As for the future, I will unfortunately be unable to continue working with Marcus as he begins working on his honors project. I will instead be working with Josh XRDing China samples Amanda had collected a few years ago. I hope to increase my abilities in understanding how to interpret XRD data, as I am dead set on become fluent when it comes using XRD-analysis software.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to go to the Caribbean and assist Marcus with his KECK research. I look forward to what adventures will open up for me in the future.

Thanks for reading!


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr Day with the Sciences

While classes may have been canceled yesterday to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 29 students from the Oberlin area were keeping their minds sharp at a workshop hosted by Get With the Program.  This organization, founded by Obie alum Jason Williams, engages elementary school kids in fun STEM themed events regularly.  The programs goal is to get kids involved with STEM concepts early, encouraging their excitement and curiosity about these subjects before they can become scary or overwhelming. Each event has a different focus; in the fall there was a petting zoo teaching the kids to about zoology and the classification of farm animals, yesterday the kids were able to learn about Crypto-currencies and the next event in February will be focused on neuroscience!

Photo from the petting-zoo in early Septemeber
The day started at 9:45AM, with the first hour and half or so being focused on getting to know each other. Most of the kids had come to some events before, but were also new faces and introductions to be made! After some intense rounds of heads-up seven-up and a Simon says-charades combination game, we had our first introduction to crypto-currencies. The “watered down” explanation of computers solving complex math problems to encode and decode keys, which then have to be checked against a decentralized nodal-network still mostly goes over my head. After that we introduced them to one more: STEMCoins. Every student was handed their own paper-wallet with a unique QR-code inside, letting us add those coins to a student’s balance if they answered questions or helped others throughout the day. I’m not sure how much these 3rd graders fully understood, but they loved getting to do their own code-breaking. We showed them the “Pigpen” cypher, where every letter is turned into a combination of lines and dots, and had them decode a series of messages on the board. It was a great way to get them thinking, and they were so excited to create their own encrypted messages.
Investigating what might be in the beakers!

After that we had a lunch break at the lovely Stevenson dining hall before starting the second part of the day. Freshly fueled with healthy dose of pizza and ice cream, the kids began their adventures around the science center. All the kids were broken into four groups and two of them began a scavenger hunt while the other two competed in a relay race.  The teams that completed each event the fastest were awarded the most STEM coins. The pairs of teams then swapped roles after each finished, allowing everyone to participate in all of the activities. At the end of the day we scanned in everyone’s QR code one more time and opened up the STEM-Store, a place for them to spend their hard earned coins. Prizes included extremely fashionable slap-on wristbands, XL T-shirts, and some wacky LED Sunglasses. Overall, it was a pretty fun day, and a great way to get children thinking about math and science in a fun and engaging way.

Proudly showing off the folders that they decorated to remember the day

Orange team celebrating their victory

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Hi, this is Jackson.

This is my first time working in the Geomorph lab, and I've been looking into some problems on the software side of things.  The first thing I fixed was a problem with the way the software did calculations for lead.  The calculations originally were modified to compensate for a problem that we have since found another solution for, so I had to find and remove that section of the code.  The person who originally wrote the code is no longer part of the lab, but his comments were helpful in learning how the code worked.  There were also a number of samples that threw errors when calculating.  Some of these only had errors in the batch calculations.

There did not seem to be a pattern the errors, which meant that there had to be more than one cause.  I found that some of them had a problem with the names.  The batch search matched names by only looking at the first two parts separated by hyphens and underscores.  This lead to problems in two situations.  When the name had no hyphens or underscores, it would throw an error due to trying to call the second element in an array that had only one.  I inserted a quick if statement to make it work with an array with length one, fixing the problem.

The problem had another side, which is that when the name had only one part, and then a date, the first part of the date would be added as part of the name.  This was, unfortunately, a problem I could not solve, as some of the names were supposed to have numbers as the second part, so simply making it so that it would drop a part if it was just the number would cause those ones to fail instead.  As such, it is just increases the importance of naming the files with the proper system, which always involves at least two parts of the name.

Currently I am working on altering the program so that it can avoid redoing calculations on samples it has already done calculations on, but I am having some trouble with understanding the section of the code I'd need to use to change this, so I will be studying SQL databases some more, and trying to figure out the other causes of errors.  This was my first experience working with code somebody else had written and data, outside of classes, which was a challenge, but gave me a window into a more practical and professional way of coding.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Monica and Josh dive into Oberlin's Plum Creek!

Hello Geomorph lovers - 

Monica here!

I've had such a blast working with Josh on the Plum Creek Project. While we may not have posted about it a lot, I've been sampling 4 locations twice each month since the 1st of May this past Spring. It's been a total blast, and despite Harbin (our esteemed Gamma counter) being on the fritz, I was able to muster up enough data to present a couple ideas about what could be happening to both scientists in the field and my enthusiastic Oberlin colleagues at GSA this Fall.

For all of y'all, essentially I am focusing on completing both a spatial and temporal analysis of Plum Creek, investigating the geomorphology of the creek over the course of the year for inconsistencies, patterns, etc. I've done quite a bit of work on the basic 4-spots, twice a month analysis, so Josh has taken to helping me with that, but also thinking about analysis side projects to help flesh out/clarify my data. Before we move to check in with him - here's some fin pics he took of my overtopping my boots in the field. We've had a rainy fall, which means that sometimes you have to get that barely above freezing creek water in your boots, but it's all for the sake of research.

Josh here!

My first semester working in the geomorph lab has been a lot of fun. I've been working closely with Monica on her sediment transport work, and learning a lot about both the underlying geology and the practical aspects of working in a lab. As a physics major, I don't get to go out to do thing very often, and its cool to drive around plum creek collecting samples. I also get to fill the sample analyzer with liquid nitrogen, and dry down samples to prepare them for analysis. In addition, I spent some time trying to learn how to successfully analyze XRD data on different clays, and hopefully I can have Marcus or Ely catch me up on what they've been doing. Something I've really enjoyed has been engaging with all of the relevant literature, as a lot more of the content of the papers is relevant when actually doing research, as opposed to being in a classroom. Even with just this narrow slice of one branch of geology, there is so much out there, and so much to be gained using the techniques. Two thing I want to focus on next semester are continuing to read papers and simply absorb more knowledge and finding my own small project to take ownership of. All in all, the work has been engaging and satisfying, and I look forward to continuing with everything.

Josh's finest photograph of our high-tech sieving equipment:

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mid Semester Updates!

Marcus here,

I’ve been working with Ely to investigate Dominica, an Island in the Caribbean. Over the summer I was fortunate enough to take part in the KECK research project (which you can find posts of if you search through the blog a bit) and this semester has been an extension of that. While I was here in July and August I spent a lot of time in the Geochemistry lab preparing the samples we collected for gamma-spectroscopy. It's a process i’ve talked about before, but essentially we want to create two samples from the original, one with just the coatings of the grain and another with everything else. In this lab we are just concerned with the coatings! This semester has been a little less exciting than previous ones in the lab as we’ve had to overcome a lot of technical and mechanical difficulties.

The first hurdle we had to overcome was a malfunction gamma-spectrometer. Over the summer something fell out of alignment and upon returning to Oberlin in July, we found out that we had been running samples through it but not getting any real results. We tried finding make-shift solutions for this problem several times, but ultimately it seems that the only solution was to send it back and have the manufacturer's repair it. In the meantime, Amanda suggested that we find other ways of collecting data. So we went across the street to the physics department and learned how to use the XRD, or at least tried. An XRD, or x-ray diffractometer, works by shooting x-rays at a solid substance and figuring out how much the refract before returning to another meter. This is useful for figuring out the mineralogy of things as each mineral has a unique structure which diffract rays differently. Ely and I spent several days perfecting our technique on around 20 samples, but hit a small roadblock in understanding what the values we obtained meant. There was software on the computer which identifies possible candidates, but it's hard to narrow down one from a list of hundreds.  There have been lots of conversations with our Mineralogy professor as well as Amanda in how to best choose the right mineral we’re looking at.

The slide for XRD analysis, prepared with Kaolin. We were suppose to make the surface as flat as possible, but we quickly found out that trying to do that was an extremely tedious process!
So, thats kind of where we’re at now--making do with what we’ve got. In the absence of substantial real data Ely and I have been reading a lot of papers to make sense of the diffractograms (thanks for the specificity, Zeb) to try and figure out what exactly is in our samples, but its been a struggle. Amanda suggested that we see if any of the samples we ran through the gamma-spectrometer had meaningful data, and it turns out we have 6 or 7 that did run successfully. I think our plans for the rest of the semester are to continue parsing out the XRD information, even if it's just loose connections / verifications of assumptions and try to analyze the few samples that did make it through Harbin.  I still see a lot of paper reading in our future!
XRD output of one of the samples we ran! This pattern was pretty characteristic of  most of the samples we saw and it is turning out to also be very tricky to work with!

Hi! This is Ely,

This fall has been my first semester in Amanda’s Geomorph lab, and I’ve had a blast learning the ropes from the rest of the lab group, especially from my partner, Marcus. I have joined Marcus in helping him further his Dominica KECK research project. My semester started with some general training on how to perform some of the tasks Marcus and I are responsible for.  These items include operating our gamma-spectrometer, HARBIN; leaching soil samples, and operating the X-Ray Diffractometer (XRD). For a portion of the semester, we ran samples in the XRD, and since then have been trying to decipher the data it produces, which should allow us to understand the composition of the Dominica soil samples. In addition, we leached several samples in order to prepare them for Mae Kate, a recent Obie graduate. She is currently using the samples for her research at University of Vermont. As of right now, Marcus and I are hoping to return to Dominica during winter term to collect more samples, as we believe they could provide great insight as to the before and after effects of a large tropical storm, such as Hurricane Maria, which hit Dominica head-on. I have really enjoyed my time in Amanda’s lab and being able to work alongside a mentor such as Marcus. I have truly learned a lot about the scientific methods used in a lab that is not part of an organized classroom setting, something I have never experienced before.

Thanks for reading!