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From Mountains to Sea and All Points In-Between: Undergraduate Research in EES

by Rebecca Freeman
Director of Undergraduate Studies, EES

As competition for graduate school admission increases, we have come to realize that it is increasingly important for our top undergraduates in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences to have research experience before they graduate. With the generous (and we hope, ongoing) support of our alumni we have recently awarded the first round of the “Alumni Undergraduate Research Fellowships.” We hope to be able to award at least one or two every semester and summer session.

Even before the launch of this new internally-funded program, our undergraduates have been busy in the lab and in the field.

Sean Bemis’ NSF-funded research group has incorporated undergraduate researchers every summer since his arrival in the department. Rising Senior and non-traditional student Mike Priddy was the lucky selection for summer 2014. Bemis’ primary field area is Alaska and field work generally involves helicoptering into remote areas, camping under primitive conditions, climbing mountains, and dodging bears—in short, everything a UK EES undergraduate is trained to want to do! Mike presented his research “Shortening at the western end of the Mount McKinley restraining bend: Preliminary slip rate and along-strike changes associated with the Chedotlothna Fault, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska” at the GSA meeting in Vancouver. Previous summer’s undergraduate researchers Josh DeVore and Patrick Taylor also presented their research on active faults in the Alaska Range at AGU, and Josh is now in graduate school at Ohio State. Undergraduates Sean Rohrer and Jennifer Whitney have helped in the Bemis lab by processing rocks for cosmogenic exposure dating and compiling GIS datasets. Joining a collaborative project with students from 4 separate institutions, undergraduate Joseph Lucas worked on Bemis’ ongoing San Andreas fault studies during Summer 2014.

Junior J.P. Sparr, known already for his keen eye for unusual fossil finds, demonstrated this skill in the fall of 2013 when he discovered an unusual crinoid garden exposed along a bedding plane in a creek. Working with faculty member Rebecca Freeman, he mapped this occurrence while braving miserable weather and gunfire from an out-of-season hunter. Ah, field work in Kentucky! He presented two aspects of his work at two different conferences during the spring of 2014. At the National Council on Undergraduate Research he presented Rapid burial and unusual preservation of a crinoid garden in the Mississippian Borden Formation of south central Kentucky”. He presented “Snapshot of phosphate nodule formation in the Mississippian Borden Formation, Kentucky: A crinoid obrution event as a source of phosphorus” at the North Central section meeting of GSA.

Meanwhile, rising Senior Bailee Hodelka wrote a grant proposal for summer 2014 and received funding from UK’s Undergraduate Research program. Bailee spent the summer processing samples from an ODP core for foraminifera. She was very successful at finding the little bugs and spent many long hours at the microscope counting and sorting. She presented her findings in an hour-long seminar at the Kentucky Geological Survey, where she is a student worker. She also presented a poster at AGU: Tiny fossils, big impact: Sedimentology of a foraminifera-enriched detachment horizon of a large retrogressive submarine landslide in the Gulf of Mexico”.

The Kentucky Geological Survey also played a key role in encouraging Junior Clay Atcher’s research during the spring of 2014. Clay investigated the possibility of using a salt tracer solution to improve electrical resistivity imaging of karst conduits. Clay carried out this research at the Kentucky Horse Park and the successful initial results resulted in a well-attended poster at the national GSA meeting in Vancouver: “A test of combining time-lapse electrical resistivity imaging and salt injection for locating karst conduits”.

Rising Senior Jake Lee spent summer 2014 in a rather different way, mapping the Peach Spring Tuff in Arizona through a NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Program administered through Vanderbilt and Mercyhurst universities. Jake got to meet fellow undergraduates from all around the country. He also got to demonstrate that, when it comes to field mapping, UK EES undergraduates really know what they are doing! He presented his work at the national GSA meeting in Vancouver as a poster: “Implications of eruptive, erosive, and depositional processes prior to a super eruption in the Southern Black Mountains”.

Mike McGlue and the Pioneer lab are a relatively new addition to the program but already a number of undergraduates have done paid and voluntary research. Taylor Chapman, Joseph Lucas, and Alyssa Eliopolous spent summer and fall 2014 working on everything from seismic surveys to conodonts to organic geochemistry in support of UK-Pioneer collaborative research on Pennsylvanian shales from west Texas. Victoria Oberc is currently working on a project aimed at understanding Holocene paleoenvironments in western Brazil. Both Vicki and Taylor will present the results of their research at conferences in the near future. This spring, the Pioneer lab welcomes Meredith O’Dell, an EES junior who will work on a shale geochemistry and petroleum geology project as a Chellgren Student Fellow.  

Our increased emphasis on undergraduate research is off to a good start, and we hope that with the implementation of the new Undergraduate Research Fellowships and your support, more and more of our talented students will be able to take advantage of this valuable educational experience! Stay tuned for results of the new fellowships next year!

>>View this PowerPoint presentation for more of the undergraduate work being done in EES.