Research Rocks

Faculty and students at the University of Mary Washington are breaking ground, literally, at historically significant geological sites.

This past July, Associate Professor of Geology Neil Tibert and Professor of Geology Jodie Hayob ventured with students to the Atlantic Canadian province of Nova Scotia for data collection and study on two different research projects.

(from left): David Phillips '14, Carter Moore '14, and Chiara Tornabene '14 are working on research projects with Professor Neil Tibert (standing, left) and Professor Jodie Hayob. Photo by Kimmie Barkley '14

(from left): David Phillips ’14, Carter Moore ’14, and Chiara Tornabene ’14 are working on research projects with Professor Neil Tibert (standing, left) and Professor Jodie Hayob.
Photo by Kimmie Barkley ’14

Tibert’s work focuses on sedimentary rocks that contain microfossils providing insight into the evolution of coastal and lake ecosystems of eastern North America, while Hayob is studying volcanic rocks that formed when the Atlantic Ocean was rifting open.

“The world changed significantly at this time,” Tibert said.

Tibert has roots in Nova Scotia dating back to childhood. He completed undergraduate and graduate programs at Dalhousie University in Halifax, in pursuit of research that two of his students are now tracking two decades later.

Senior geology and classics major and Italian international student Chiara Tornabene and senior environmental science major Carter Moore accompanied Tibert and Hayob to collect rock samples for their senior thesis work.

“The quote is: ‘the best geologist is the one who’s seen the most rocks,’ and the rocks can’t come to you, you need to go to them,” Tibert said.

During their time abroad, Tornabene and Moore collected sedimentary rocks from Scots Bay. The rocks contain ostracodes, a type of microfossil, which will help them understand the in-depth ancient ecosystems.

“They’re involved in some research that is a significant contribution to our understanding of the evolution of… the earth and the environment through time,” Tibert said.

The students traveled through the UMW Summer Science Institute, a 10-week undergraduate research program which began in 1999.

Carter Moore (left) and Chiara Tornabene traveled to Nova Scotia in July 2013.

Carter Moore (left) and Chiara Tornabene traveled to Nova Scotia in July 2013.

They spent their time in Nova Scotia living in the dorms of Acadia University in Wolfville. A typical day in Nova Scotia, Tornabene said, consisted of field work in the morning and then dinner with Tibert’s family, who reside in Nova Scotia.

“We were never bored that’s for sure,” Tornabene said.

Tornabene explained that her rocks “represent lake sediments from the Early Jurassic Period and are located right above the geologic boundary between the Triassic and the Jurassic Periods.”

At that time in history, there were significant changes, including climate change and “major rearrangement of the structure of terrestrial and marine environments,” Tornabene said.

“Almost 50 percent of all species became extinct,” said Tornabene. “The climate went from cold to very hot and the supercontinent Pangaea continued to break.” Many freshwater environments were formed as well, and they were the ancestors of today’s environments, which Tornabene is now studying.

She will use the ostracodes as a tool to determine the past structuring of the environment, and improve understanding of the evolution of freshwater environments.

This semester, Toranbene continues the research, analyzing the rocks from Nova Scotia. If she recovers previously undiscovered ostracodes and can determine their relative age, she can use that to date similar rocks elsewhere.

Moore is also using ostracodes in her geologic studies at Blue Beach in Nova Scotia. She will study the ostracodes to characterize the depositional environment of the ancient sedimentary rocks.

Carter Moore examines a rock sample, with David Phillips (left) and Chiara Tornabene.

Carter Moore examines a rock sample, with David Phillips (left) and Chiara Tornabene.

“The students are studying these ostacodes to reconstruct the past,”Tibert said.

For Tibert and Hayob, the experience their students had in Nova Scotia is invaluable.

“Most careers in geology involved going to remote sites, so I feel it’s an important part of the training to give them the experience they need to become a professional geologist or an academic,” Tibert said.

For students at public institutions similar to the size of UMW, Hayob said, it’s rare to have opportunities similar to Moore’s and Tornabene’s.

“We compare very well with…the highest ranked undergraduate private institutions,” she said.

In a separate project, senior geology major David Phillips is working with Hayob to determine the petrology—science dealing with the origin, history, occurrence, structure, chemical composition and classification of rocks—of Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) basalts, a volcanic rock that erupted when the early Atlantic ocean began to rift apart.

According to Hayob, no one has done a comprehensive comparison of the rift basin basalts among Nova Scotia.

Studying these basalts will lead to a comparison with basalts from other regions within a suite of rocks called the Newark Supergroup, according to Phillips and Hayob.The group includes the Hartford Basin in Connecticut, Newark Basin in New Jersey and Culpeper Basin in Virginia, which are all Triassic-Jurassic in age.

Data could reveal differences in volcanic processes, such as depth of melting or degree of partial melting, that formed the rift basins, Phillips said.

Now back in the states, all three students are working hard to complete their research projects. They will present their results at the Northeastern meeting for the Geological Society of America in Lancaster, Pa., in March, 2014.

While the trip provided an important educational opportunity, Tornabene said, the experience was priceless.

“This trip was not only something I can put on a resume, it was an experience I will always remember and carry with me.”

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