Michaela Falkenroth, Sedimentologist

The image is a selfie of a girl in a black jumper. She has a green toothbrush sticking out of her mouth and an amused look on her face. The background is a backbeach area with reddish sand and a couple of thorny shrubs. You can make out tire tracks and footsteps on the sand. The sky is whitish blue and the lighting shows that the sun is just rising.
When you are a field geologist that studies beaches, chances are you have to work at the beach, sleep at the beach, eat at the beach and brush your teeth there, too.

Hey there! My name is Michaela and I am a cat-lady, sci-fi-nerd and hobby illustrator, who gets paid to hang out on tropical beaches a lot – how is that possible, you ask? Well… I got lucky.

The first time I got lucky was when I was eight years old and announced to my flabbergasted parents that I had decided to become a paleontologist like my hero at the time: Dr Alan Grant (also known as “guy with the cool hat in Jurassic Park”). My parents, who did not have the opportunity to go to university themselves and had never heard of paleontology, would have been perfectly justified to believe that my career goals were nothing to be taken seriously and move on, but they did not. Instead, they bought piles of dinosaur books, spent countless hours in museums and corrected everyone who confused paleontology with archeology with admirable patience. I was still set on becoming a paleontologist 11 years later, when I first set foot in the geoscience department of University Bonn. It is certainly not my parents’ fault that I didn’t.

The image shows a broad river flowing through a deep valley with high but not very steep, rocky walls. A bright blue sky in the background, no vegetation except for some palm trees by the water and bright sunlight indicate a desert environment. The water is calm, completely clear and shallow, the ground is covered in light grey gravel. A girl is standing knee deep in the water looking at a smoothened cliff that is twice as tall as she and boarders the river. The cliff is almost white and consists of well-rounded gravel in different sizes that is held together by a white matrix. The girl wears long, green pants, a dark T-Shirt and a cap that casts a shadow over her face. She points at something on the cliff to show it to a guy standing a few meters behind her.
Sedimentology is the study of rocks that were broken down into smaller pieces and transported on the surface of the planet by wind, gravity, and water. Here, I look at a river sediment in Oman that was turned into hard rock by a natural cement.

The second time I got lucky has to do with the fact that becoming a paleontologist in Germany requires you to become a geologist first. It only took a couple of rock identification classes for me to realize that yes, dinosaurs are amazing, but evolution is only one of the natural processes that shape our planet, and the others are even more fascinating to me. I had never thought about mountains being crumbled into tiny pieces by weather and time, these pieces then being transported by wind and rivers into the ocean, while being reshaped again and again, before they come to rest somewhere along the way. As a sedimentologist you look at the pieces of rock that are shuffled around on the planet’s surface and make them your own personal window through time. Sedimentary rocks let you study rivers that rushed by millions of years ago or watch coral reefs grow and die and regrow in a millennial cycle. By the time I finished my bachelor’s degree I was hooked. I still have a cool dinosaur model on my desk, but sedimentary rocks are what is on my mind, what pays my bills (sometimes) and what got me into another field of science with a very relevant application: sea level research.

A strongly fractured, uneven surface of brown and crumbly-looking rock fills most of the image that was taken from a heightened position. On top of the rock stands a smiling girl in fieldwork attire. She has her hair in a ponytail, arms akimbo and a broad grin on her face. One corner of the background shows a rough, blueish-green ocean with big waves breaking on a rocky platform in white foam.
Me on a beach in South Africa, happy about a freaky beachrock that I just discovered. The rocks that I am standing on formed within the last 77 years, before that it was just a sandy beach.

This brings me to the third time I got lucky. This one really did not feel like luck at the time. In 2016, I got rejected for three possible projects for a master thesis and thus one day stumbled into the office of the new professor at the department, who had nothing to do with sedimentology. I stood in the doorframe a little desperate and ready to take whatever the man would offer. This professor, who would later become my PhD supervisor and close friend, offered me an opportunity to study sea level change at the coastline of Oman – turns out you can squeeze sedimentology into any project.

Sea-level and coastal research became the focus of my scientific journey and Oman somewhat of a second home. For my masters and PhD, I studied beachrock. That is essentially beach sand that turned into hard rock, because a natural cement forms in between the individual grains of sand. Think of it as a bunch of sand and gravel glued together by carbonate, the white stuff that forms in your kettle or washing machine. Beachrocks are not only very cool, but also useful when we are trying to understand how sea level changed in the past and make assumptions on how it is going to change in the future. Climate driven global sea level rise might be something you are familiar with, but that is only part of the story. Yes, global sea level is rising, but the land might move as well. In some areas it is sinking, making global sea level rise an even bigger problem, in other areas the land is uplifting, mitigating the effects of global sea level rise. Beachrocks can help to understand what is happening on one individual stretch of coastline, giving coastal communities the chance to adapt and me the chance to hang out on tropical beaches a lot. While on the beach, I study the sedimentological characteristics of the beachrock and take samples. The samples are then taken to the lab – either to determine their age or to use a microscope to look at the cement between the grains.

The photograph shows a magnified image of four sand grains and the empty space between them. A scale in the corner shows that the grains are between 200 and 400 microns in diameter. The grains have smoothed surfaces and show different colors: transparent pale blue, transparent pale green or black with a grainy texture. The empty space between the grains is black. A 50 to 100 microns thick rim surrounds the grains. It has a greyish color and looks like a palisade fence with pointy tips reaching into the empty pore space. The individual grains do not touch but their rims overlap, holding them together.
Beachrock under the microscope. The empty space between the sand grains is filled by a natural cement that first forms as a rim around each grain and will later fill up the entire pore space turning loose sand into hard rock within years.

Right now, I am (sadly) neither at a beach nor in a lab, but at a desk in Germany preparing for my PhD defense and applying for postdoc positions – a tedious task that involves a lot of rejection. I don’t think there is a career in science without tedious tasks, be it repetitive lab work, marking piles of exams or never-ending application forms to fill out. Nevertheless, science allows me to keep my inner child alive, it allows me to follow my curiosity, all while making a contribution that helps coastal communities deal with the threat of sea level rise. I don’t know if I’ll get lucky one more time and be allowed to do this for a few more years, but I certainly hope so. One thing that I wish I had known from the beginning is that people are more important than the academic disciplines they belong to – looking back I would always choose a mentor outside my specialty with whom I have a great connection over the greatest expert in my field who does not care about me.

Update: By the time this is posted, I successfully defended my PhD thesis and started a Postdoc position in Heidelberg, Germany, where I get to teach sedimentology (yay) and work on a grant proposal for studying the incorporation of trash into beachrock on the Bahamas (even bigger yay)!!

The image shows four smiling people in fieldwork attire standing next to a one-humped camel. All four are wearing sandals and scarves wrapped around their heads. Three of them are girls and one is a bearded man, who is slightly older than the others. One of the girls is stroking the camel’s neck. The scarves and loose hairs of the girls are flapping in the wind, which seems to be quite strong. The background is a desert landscape with high dunes and a couple of fences but no vegetation. The sand is bright red. The sky is grey with dust, indicating a mild sandstorm.
Me, two other PhD-students from our lab and my supervisor Gösta at a field trip in the Wahiba Sands in Oman. Pro tip for everyone pursuing a career in science: choose your lab based on the people not on the prestige, the lab gear or the expertise… you can get all of these elsewhere. A good relationship with the PI is irreplaceable.