The Lab Work Realities of Paleoclimate Research

Last summer I was fortunate enough to have participated in an REU (research experience for undergraduates) in New York City. For ten weeks I conducted a volcanology project that researched the ascent rate of magma from a past volcanic eruption. I investigated Volcan de Fuego, located in Guatemala, and used FTIR to measure how much water was left in the mineral olivine which had been found in ash samples. I spent a lot of my time polishing olivine crystals the size of a pencil tip and looking for grains under a microscope. Although participating in the REU gave me a lot of research experience, the research I’m doing this summer is on the complete other side of the spectrum! This summer, much of my research has revolved around what organic matter can tell us about environmental changes.

I started summer lab work on Wednesday, June 8th, precisely nine days after returning from Norway. I was excited, yet nervous. Although I was ready to start conducting lab work, I didn’t really know what exactly I’d be doing. Within days Nick Balascio, my faculty advisor, had got me acclimated to lab work. Some of the work was a lot simpler than I had expected, but other parts were a lot more difficult and time-consuming than I thought they would be. However, by weeks end I was already collecting detailed data and I was well on my way to a productive summer.

To give you all an idea of what lab work was like, if I were to choose two words to sum up life in the lab, they would be “smelly” and “hot.” Many of the lakes that I’m investigating are anoxic, meaning the bottom of the lake is completely depleted of oxygen and the sediment at the bottom smells strongly of sulfur. We experienced this overwhelming smell when pulling up the lake core and were reminded of the stench when we split the cores into two symmetrical halves. With every core, one-half is preserved as an archive and the other half is used to sample the core. Before sampling the core, it’s important to complete a core description, measure the magnetic susceptibility of the core and take photos of the core every ten centimeters to preserve evidence of its original stratigraphy. It is important that all these steps are completed before sampling the core. Sampling a core is removing two cubic centimeters of wet material to be dried and eventually run through an element analyzer or used for LOI (Loss on Ignition). This is where things get hot. Although I only ran my samples through the element analyzer, other undergraduates in the lab would do LOI which measures the amount organic and inorganic matter in each sample. LOI requires heating a furnace to 550° C and 1000° C. For those like myself who are not quite attuned to the Celsius measure of temperature, that is 1022° F and 1832° F respectively. On days that LOI was done, the lab room would almost instantaneously increase by about 10° F anytime the door to the furnace was opened.

In addition to taking photos and sampling the core, I also created a lot of “tin boats.” These tiny aluminum boats contained dried sample and were run on the element analyzer to measure the percent of Sulfur, Nitrogen, and Carbon in the samples. The measure of these different elements gives insight on the salinity changes in the lake, as well as environmental changes that may have occurred throughout the catchment.

As tedious as lab work can be, I find it incredible that sediment at the bottom of a lake can tell us so much about the history of an area. It’s amazing to think that as little as two meters of material in the areas we are studying can date back thousands of years to when glaciers still existed in the valley. Each day I’m excited to go into lab because you never know what new things you might discover.

Comments

  1. aewingate says:

    Hi, thanks for explaining the process of core sampling. I’m not a science person, but the process makes sense. It is really awesome to see the layers in the earth. It’s been striking in Alaska and Iceland when I’ve seen the layers revealed by glaciers. Has there been anything particularly interesting that you have discovered among what I assume to be a mountain of data?