Geology students are rock stars

Geology students are rock stars

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Many students study fields of science at Boise State, but a select few are changing science.

Students Amanda Laib, Kathleen Bundy, Josh Ekhoff and Eliza Schuz will be attending the Geological Society of America (GSA) Annual Meeting to present and share the research they have conducted at Boise State.

The 125th edition of the conference will take place from Oct. 27-28 in Denver, Colo.

The students work alongside Boise State associate professor of isotope geochemistry Mark Schmitz, Ph.D., who is world-renowned for his work in dating some of earth’s oldest minerals and events. He runs the Isotope Geology Laboratory at Boise State.

It’s not uncommon for students enrolled at universities across the country to conduct research,.However, these students are seldom able to uncover some of the remaining unanswered questions about Earth.

Ekhoff and Bundy, along with Schmitz and other professors, are working to date the Hangenberg event, which resulted in a mass extinction event hundreds of millions of years ago.

The event is known to have happened globally, but the date it happened is still unknown. By discovering a precise time —within 100,000 years or less — the research can be used to discover the meaning of other events today.

“Knowing the precise time when events happen help you understand why they happened. That’s obviously really relevant to us today because we want to know why climate change is happening,” Bundy said.

Bundy and Ekhoff gathered samples outside of Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada where last year strong samples of the lower black shale, which bracketed the extinction event, can be found.

The most reliable samples are found in Germany. Schmitz has been all over the world collecting samples from the same event in order to date the samples and find any correlations.

Schmitz recruited both Bundy and Ekhoff, despite neither of them completing any of his courses at the university.

Schmitz devised his proposal along with assistant research professor Vladimir Davydov, Ph.D., and the plan immediately garnered the support and undergraduate funding.

With the advancements in absolute uranium dating, students in Schmitz’s lab have some of the most prolific technology in the field at their disposal.

Located in Schmitz’s lab is the Thermo Ionization Mass Spectrometer (TIMS), which is one of the most advanced machines available for absolute dating on the planet.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the only other universities in the United States with the machine.

“We’re incredibly lucky. There aren’t a lot of universities where you can do that kind of research with that kind of machine,” Bundy said.

Laib, now a graduate student, also works with Schmitz, but in an entirely different capacity.

She is working with volcanic rock to test a hypothesis by deceased geologist Richard Visher. Visher believed that mineral trends implied that there were inverted magma patterns in a sample.

As a non-traditional student, Laib didn’t initially believe she would enter the field of geological research.

She sought out Schmitz to gain research experience in order to avoid needing to go to graduate school, but ultimately became a graduate student at Boise State nonetheless.

“I wasn’t born-and-bred to do research,” Laib said. “Mark has quit giving me the answers, and has encouraged me to think without his constant input.”

Both Laib and the group of Bundy and Ekhoff have grown immensely passionate toward their projects, and research has become their top priority.

“It’s hard to go to class and not go to work. I’ll be sitting and class and go: ‘Man, I’ve got theses samples I have to run,’” Ekhoff said. “It’s so cool.”

The GSA meeting serves as an opportunity for all of the students to share ideas, compare research projects and network with industry professionals. Though many well-known scientists attend the event, Ekhoff, and many other scientists around the world, believe the best minds are in-house at Boise State.

Both Schmitz and Davydov are respected throughout the field for their work in geosciences.

“It’s weird to interact with people, because you’re kind of isolated in your university and just know him as Mark, or Vladimir,” Ekhoff said. “Then you talk to other people and they’re like, ‘oh, no, Mark is a rock star.’ And Vladimir is world-renowned; in Europe he’s a rock star.”

With the success of recent research, Boise State students like Laib, Bundy and Ekhoff may be rock-stars themselves very, very soon.

John Engel
John Engel is the sports editor of the Arbiter. He got interested in journalism when he was cut from the baseball team his junior year of high school. He started writing for his high school newspaper and swore he would one day work for ESPN, and indeed he did. He recently finished an internship with ESPN as a radio production intern where he talked to Kobe Bryant and almost fainted. He still works with ESPN Radio's Boise affiliate, ESPN Boise as a studio engineer, reporter and SportsCenter anchor. He is majoring in communication with an audio production emphasis, and plans to graduate sometime in the next decade. Follow John on Twitter: @EngelESPN