The Seagoing Geologist

The Student Experience

The typhoon had finally stopped slamming the ship, and sophomore Matthew Bolyn could focus on the research that had taken him to the South Pacific near Tahiti for six weeks in Spring 2005.

Bolyn carefully split the core sample he had helped to haul from the ocean floor. In it, he knew, were fifty-million-years’ worth of Earth history and perhaps some clues about the future.

As the only undergraduate on the expedition, Bolyn helped gather data, manned sonar equipment, helped retrieve core samples from about four thousand meters below the surface, made slides of sediment, and observed as a group of experienced scientists and graduate students uncovered secrets hidden in the core samples.

Seagoing geologists

Matt Bolyn, center, worked alongside scientists from across the country to take core samples from the ocean floor.

Back in the lab, the sediment was dated and studied. Two hundred meters of sediment can represent fifty million years. A few centimeters can cover a thousand years. Loose fish teeth as tiny as grains of salt can identify a species, revealing the time period of that portion.

“The classes I’d taken on fossils and mineralogy contributed to what I gained from the trip,” Bolyn, a Geology major, said. “I tried to learn as much as I could.”

Timelines also can be traced from the magnetic anomalies in the sample, according to IUP Geoscience professor Steve Hovan, another trip participant. He explained that the Earth’s magnetism from the North to South poles has reversed at documented times in history.

Along with dating the sample, researchers use chemical extractions and clay mineralogy identification to track the sediment’s origin.

“The rocks that make up the continents have geochemical fingerprints,” Hovan said. The sea floor targeted on the recent trip included mostly South African and Australian dust.

By the amount of dust particles, combined with wind patterns, scientists draw conclusions about how dry the climate on Earth was at the time. The cores taken on the trip could be dated back to the Paleocene-Eocene boundary in history, which Hovan said was the warmest period on Earth after the dinosaurs.

“There were no ice sheets anywhere, not even on Antarctica,” Hovan said. “We can study how fast the winds were blowing, the temperatures of the ocean and biological productivity of global climates through sediments in the sea, and look at how the Earth transitions from warmer to colder climates.”

High-pressure coffee cups

For fun and experimentation, the crew sends Styrofoam coffee cups to the ocean floor. Upon return from a depth of 3,500 meters, the cups were drastically altered, squeezed to the size of thimbles because of the enormous water pressure.

Last spring’s trip and the scientists who made it had backing from a National Science Foundation grant. Bolyn received support from an IUP Senate Research Committee Award and the Paul Prince Memorial Fund, which was set up through the Foundation for IUP in memory of an IUP professor. The memorial fund enables students to study the ocean.

“I loved it,” Bolyn said. “It was great...except for the typhoon. Definitely a worthwhile thing to do, it was a great experience.”

Bolyn wasn’t the first IUP student who has gone to sea in the name of science.

Among his predecessors is Kevin Jones ’03, now a doctoral student at Columbia University who conducts research at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. Jones is focusing on isotope geochemistry. Hovan arranged for Jones, as an undergraduate, to study aboard a research cruise that focused on heat flow and the seismic velocity of crust at the flank of the East Pacific Rise near the equator. His role was to help take sediment cores.

“In the lab at IUP, I learned many of the sediment-handling techniques that I still use today,” said Jones.

Christa Ziegler ’01, now a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University, was also inspired by her experiences in the lab in the basement of Weyandt Hall, where students have the chance to do chemical extractions to separate material in ocean sediment.

“I felt respected as a future colleague as opposed to a technician,” she said. “As soon as I started working in the lab, I got really serious about science. I was working a lot, not just to get the A. I had a passion to learn all that I could—to go beyond the textbook.”