Dr. Benjamin Gill, Geochemist

Fieldwork in the Clan Alpine Range of Nevada. This work was part of an NSF funded study on the changes in paleoceanography in response to climate change during the Early Jurassic.

What is your favorite aspect about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?

What I love most about being a scientist is being able to follow my curiosity. It’s a privilege to be able work on things that I’m genuinely excited about. I’ve always been interested in the world around me. This probably was first sparked by outdoor trips (camping, hiking, etc.) that my dad took me on when on I was a kid. Specifically, I got interested in geology because my childhood best friend’s dad is a geologist. He took us on trips to collect rocks and minerals; I liked it and my friend was let’s say less enthusiastic about it.

Field work on the Middle Cambrian Wheeler Formation in the Drum Mountains of Utah. This study was to examine the environmental conditions that led to the preservation of an exceptional fossils deposits in this formation.

As a scientist, what do you do?

I study the history of environmental change on our planet in order to determine what was behind this change and its consequences. I mainly do this by looking at the chemistry of the sediments and rocks that were deposited/formed during these time intervals. The chemistry of these materials allows us to reconstruct chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere in the long-distance past.

What data do you use in your research? 

Much of my research involves working with geochemical data obtained from sediments, fossils and sedimentary rocks. Specifically, in our laboratory at Virginia Tech, we have instruments that can measure the amount and the isotopes of (atoms with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons) carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. However, my students and I don’t just stick to the laboratory — we frequently go into the field to collect samples. In fact, this summer we will be out in Nevada and Alaska collecting samples and data in the field.

Field team for 2018 for our study of the end-Triassic mass extinctions in Alaska. Front row, left to right: Jeremy Owens (Florida State University), Theodore Them (College of Charleston, former PhD student from our lab group), João Trabucho-Alexandre (Utrecht University). Back Row left to right: Me, Martyn Golding (Geological Survey of Canada), Andrew Caruthers (Western Michigan University), Yorick Veenma (Utrecht University), and Selva Marroquín (Virginia Tech, PhD candidate in our research group).

It is also important to point out that much of the work I do involves collaborating with colleagues with a variety of specialties: paleontologists, sedimentologists and mineralogists to name a few. Combining all these different types of data allows us to make more integrated and robust scientific interpretations.

Drilling core from Chattanooga Shale in Tennessee for a study on the Late Devonian mass extinctions. In the foreground is Matt Leroy, PhD candidate in our research group. We were collecting these rocks as part of one of a of his research projects.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

 

Studying past events informs us about how our planet responds to past changes in the climate and environment. In other words, understanding these past events helps us understand how the Earth may change in the future. Many of the events my lab group studies involve times of rapid or serve climatic and environmental change and mass extinction events.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be wrong. One of my mentors in graduate school says that 99 percent, if not all, of your scientific interpretations are going to be wrong. This isn’t an excuse to be ignorant, but all you can do is to come up with the best explanation with what you have.

Hiking to a field site in Alberta with graduate students from my lab group. This work was part of an NSF funded study on the changes in paleoceanography in response to climate change during the Early Jurassic. Left to right: Theodore Them, Angela Gerhardt and me.
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