I'm Gabe, a 4th year (ish), and I just started working in the lab this semester. And it sure has been a heck of a time. I'll start by saying that I came into geology relatively late. Since coming to Oberlin as a transfer last year, I've been taking as many geo classes as possible, and finally worked up the courage to declare last semester. It's been an eventful and exciting year, and I've learned so much over the past three semesters.
With that said, though, I'd be lying if I said I didn't find myself scratching my head sometimes, especially when it comes to research this semester. I took Earth Surface Processes last semester, and while I remember learning about isotopes and geochemistry... things have a way of slipping away during summer vacation. At the beginning of this semester, I figured that since I'm now a member of a team that's largely dedicated to working with these concepts, it's probably a good idea for me to understand them. During one of our first lab meetings this year, Amanda drew a few pictures and explained to me how the different fallout radionuclides (most importantly: 7 Be 210Pb and 137Cs) reach the soil, how they are differentially adsorbed and stored, and how they are useful to geologists for understanding erosion. On a broad level, I understood the purpose of the research and the driving observations but... there were still a lot of questions, many of which I couldn't even figure out how to put into words.
Over fall break, Amanda gave me three papers which are all directly relevant to the research we do in the lab. Reading science writing, an art in itself, is still something I'm getting used to, but I made my way through all three papers unscathed. What I found really cool about these three papers was how differently they used the same relatively specific tools to investigate fairly different things. One paper, from 1992, was largely theoretical. The paper investigates how radionuclides, or "radiometric fingerprints," can be used to gather information on suspended sediment sources (another topic I should maybe read up on) because they are independent of many otherwise limiting factors like lithology and soil type. Another paper focused on how radionuclides can be used to distinguish different types of erosion, specifically different types of sub-surface erosion. This paper had a slightly more practical approach, and talked about how this distinction between erosion types can help guide erosion mitigation attempts. The third paper did not discuss radionuclides, but instead focused on the calculation of sediment yields in order to understand anthropogenic effects. This paper also had some fun historical context which even attracted my parents into talking about geochemistry with me.
Reading these three papers, especially combined with the experience of leaching and running samples, was incredibly helpful. Although I still don't understand a lot of the the nitty gritty geochemistry, and may have skipped or skimmed a few paragraphs here or there, I definitely feel a lot more confident with my role in the research group as we enter the second half of the semester. And I'm certain that my understanding will only become more refined as the semester continues.