This summer I attended the FORCE11 Scholarly Communication Institute. This was a cool opportunity because I have been to many research-focused conferences and workshops, but I’ve not yet been to one that focused on scholarly communications. Scholarly communications refers to the process of publishing and communicating research, from arts and sciences to humanities. FSCI is unique because it brings together students, researchers, librarians, and publishers. Some of the sessions during the week were about new methods for making your research reproducible, from research methods to repositories for code and data. Others were on aspects of the publishing industry and how we can make research more accessible across the divides of language barriers and paywalls (when a paper is only accessible if you or your institution has a subscription to the journal it is in).
The workshop was set up so that each participant would choose three courses throughout the week, one in the mornings and two in the afternoons. The course that I enjoyed the most and felt gave me the most practical knowledge to bring back was called “The Scientific Paper of the Future”. This course talked about various aspects of the research and publishing process in the context of open science. I was familiar with data management plans and depositing data in repositories, but there were some aspects that were new to me. For example, there is now a trend of also depositing code and software packages developed as part of research in repositories, and also writing journal articles to document and describe them. Another is documenting your workflow. There are a few websites to do this now, which involves writing up a plan for who on your team is going to do which aspects of research, and then documenting this as you go. Workflow documenting also includes writing down every detail of your method and even the experiments and workflows that did not work, to help people avoid repeating your mistakes and instead building on your work.
This was a new type of workshop for me, but it was really great to get out of my comfort zone of interacting mostly with fellow scientists to meet librarians and publishing experts who are also interested in open science for everyone.
Last December I got a chance to do two things I have never done before: Visit Washington D.C. and attend the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting. The AGU fall meeting is one of the biggest geology conferences and is held every year in December. This year they broke records with 26,000+ attendees and 28,000+ abstracts submitted!
My advisor was working on a project which required surveying attendees of the meeting and he was able to pay for me to come as well to help out with that. While I had to spend much of my time there at the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) Data Help Desk in the exhibit hall, I was able to get away and attend some talks and poster sessions. The project I was helping with was asking scientists who came for help at the Help Desk about their experiences, so we can figure out how to make the Help Desk more relevant and helpful for scientists at future meetings.
I flew in a whole day early so I could explore around D.C., because I knew once the conference started there would be so much going on it would be hard to get away. It was quite cold out so I bundled up in my jacket, hat, and scarf and headed out to see what I could find. I headed toward the National Mall, excited to finally visit the Smithsonian and all the memorials. I walked all the way to the far end of the mall first so I could see the various memorials. I visited the World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials. As a geologist, my favorite was the WWII memorial because of the variety of rocks used in cool ways. I also learned that besides the regular Vietnam War memorial wall, there is a memorial to the women who served the country and made great contributions during that time.
Next I visited the National Museum of Natural History. I had seen it in movies, but I was excited to see all the exhibits in person. This being AGU week, the most packed section was the rock and mineral exhibit. There was a line to even get in, and once in the excitement in the room was quite noticeable. It was so fun to see everyone excitedly discussing the different minerals, where they came from, and why they looked the way they did. These are the things we do for fun when you get a bunch of geologists together!
At the conference, while I did spend most of my time working in the exhibit hall, I had picked a few sessions of science talks to attend. The cool thing about conferences like these is that there are many simultaneous sessions in multiple fields of geology, so I could go see talks on anything I want. I often hop around to talks in fields other than what I work on, but since I had limited time to see talks this time I picked a few planetary science sessions to go see, and a few in areas that are important to me, like promoting equity and inclusion and dealing with sexual harassment in the geosciences. One of my favorite sessions was a lunchtime special session on the last day. AGU held a session celebrating the start of their 100th year, where they had speakers from many of their 25 sections give talks on how our scientific understanding has changed in the last 100 years in their field.
One of the coolest things I got to do was on the last day, right before we left D.C. My advisor knows someone who works at the Library of Congress (LOC) with the map collection, so we got to go and get a behind the scenes tour at the LOC. I loved seeing all the old and unusual maps they have there. The room where they store the maps is as long as 3 football fields! As a geologist it was especially exciting to see their collection of notes and maps from Marie Tharp, who used data from instruments on research ships to produce the first scientific map of the seafloor. This map was important because it showed us where the seafloor was spreading and gave us more evidence for plate tectonics.
I am so glad I was able to go to AGU in D.C. for the start of their Centennial celebrations, and I look forward to going again!
I study information sciences at the University of Tennessee. Why is it called information sciences and not information science? The information sciences are a very broad field, containing many other fields such as data management, knowledge management, librarianship (public, academic, and specialized), archiving, museum studies, and information-seeking behavior studies, among others. This is really true of most sciences, as biology, geology, physics, and chemistry all contain multitudinous specialized fields within the broad discipline.
Here at UT, we have some undergraduate and doctoral students in the School of Information Sciences, but the majority of the students are in the master’s (MS) program. This is because in the library and information sciences, an MS is considered the terminal degree. It is a professional degree, meaning that rather than a focus on research and producing a thesis or dissertation like many grad school programs, there is a focus on learning theories and practical skills that librarians and information professionals need to do their jobs.
Librarians at many colleges and universities have faculty status, even though they are not doing full-time teaching or research. This is important because the services they provide are integral to all of the research and teaching that occur on campus. Many information professionals and librarians, especially academic librarians, already have graduate or undergrad degrees in other fields, which gives them a good foundation for knowing the potential information needs of the patrons they serve. Many librarians spend some amount of time on their own research, either within the information sciences or in other areas they have expertise in.
I also have a previous graduate degree, an MS in planetary geology. I decided to continue and get another MS in information sciences rather than try to find a job as a geologist right away. I knew I did not want to get a PhD and be a professor doing full-time research or teaching. However, I did want to find a way to stay involved in the planetary research and teaching community in a support role. With a degree in information sciences, I could work as a GIS specialist (What is GIS?), a technical information or data management specialist, or as a librarian specializing in an area related to planetary science. These are all jobs that exist within organizations such as academic and specialized libraries, USGS/NASA/NOAA, and private planetary science institutes and industries.
Since joining the School of Information Sciences last fall, I have had several opportunities to explore career options in this field. I got a position this as a Community Fellow with the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). ESIP receives funding from NASA, NOAA, and USGS, and contains many member organizations who are working to improve all aspects of information and data management in the earth sciences. In my position as a fellow I get to attend their two annual meetings for free and to participate in any of their clusters (groups focused on a specific topic), as well as working more closely with one particular cluster. This gives me the opportunity to see what is going on in earth science data, as well as find new people to collaborate with. I have also been able to participate in a couple of research projects focused on Earth and planetary science data. I got the chance to travel to the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington DC in December to collect data for one of these projects. I had never been to Washington DC before, so that was a cool experience. I will even get to travel to the 4th Planetary Data Workshop in Flagstaff in June to present some of my research, so stay tuned for a post about that!
A couple of years ago my mom and I took a road trip to eastern Washington state to visit Drumheller Channels in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. This is an area containing giant basalt columns, part of the Columbia River Basalt flows, as well as some of the landscape known as the Channeled Scablands, remnants of the catastrophic Ice Age floods (check out the Ice Age Floods Institute for more info).
The Columbia River Basalt Group (CRBG) is a large igneous province in eastern Washington. Large igneous provinces are usually made of very low viscosity (runny) lava which has erupted from fissures in the ground and spread out to cover a large area. The CRBG is a series of lava flows (more than 350!) that cover an area of about 163,700 km2 (63,200 mi2). These lava flows altogether are more than 1.8 km (5,900 ft) thick. These flood basalt eruptions occurred from about 17 million years to about 5 million years ago
As basalt cools, it forms a hexagonal pattern on the cooling surface exposed to the air, similar to the pattern you see in mud as it dries. From the side this pattern looks like rows of columns next to each other, and beautiful landscapes made up of several stacked flows of this “columnar basalt” are a common sight as you drive through eastern Washington. The other major component of the eastern Washington landscape, the Channeled Scablands, are the result of flooding that occurred toward the end of the last ice age. They are called Channeled Scablands because the landscape consists of many interconnected channels and coulees and appears very rugged. This landscape has turned out to be one of the most important pieces of evidence in shaping our current understanding of how geological processes have shaped the surface of the Earth.
Before J Harlen Bretz started studying this landscape in the 1920s, geologists thought all Earth processes were extremely slow and gradual in making any changes in the landscape. This was a reaction to the suggestion by young earth creationists that the earth was formed rapidly by catastrophic events. The response of geologists to this idea was to immediately dismiss any hypothesis that the landscape had formed rapidly and insist that everything had happened very slowly and gradually. J Harlen Bretz became interested in some interesting erosional features he saw in eastern Washington and began doing intensive fieldwork in the area in 1922. As he continued to map and record his observations of the features he saw there, he became more and more convinced that this landscape had not been formed gradually but had been shaped by giant floods from further east. There are giant ripples here, giant channels and coulees, and giant “potholes” where rock has been plucked up by water rushing past. These features could not be explained by very slow and gradual erosion. Today, geologists understand that while many features are formed slowly, the landscape has also been formed in places by catastrophic events, some of which we can see today in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis.
If you want to know more, here are a couple of good books to start with. Check with your local public library!
At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, we have a natural history museum on campus called the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. Every year they do a family fun day event called Can You Dig It? where scientists from different departments on campus come and set up various activities to engage families. The Earth and Planetary Sciences department always shows up with several fun activities for families and kids of all ages. This year we had quite a few things going on.
Outside we had two tables of planetary activities. One table was talking about volcanoes and how to tell the difference between rocks formed by volcanic eruptions and rocks formed by meteorite impacts. We had real meteorites and impact deposits, as well as some volcanic rocks, so the kids could hold them all and really see the difference.
I was at the other planetary table, where we had some more meteorites and 3D-printed models of actual impact craters on the moon and Mars. We used these to explain how the shape of impact craters change depending on the size of a meteorite and the speed at which it impacts. We also had a tub of flour with a thin layer of cocoa powder on top. There were several marbles and small balls, and kids could hold one above the tub and drop it to make their very own impact crater. The layering using cocoa powder allowed us to show them how ejecta blankets work at real impact craters. An ejecta blanket is made of rocks from the impact site being blown up and out of the crater and landing to form a “blanket” surrounding the crater. In the tub, you could see flour on top of the cocoa powder after the impact, showing how buried layers get exposed at the surface surrounding impact craters.
Inside the museum, we had a table where people could bring in rocks or fossils they had collected and geologists or paleontologists would help identify them. This is a really popular thing, and some people bring loads of rocks they’ve been collecting all year.
If you have a local museum, make sure to go check them out. Local museums are often cheap or free and also host fun events like this one!
I recently got to participate in a different kind of outreach activity. Instead of going to a classroom or museum and talking to students in person, I got to share my research with students in a classroom all the way across the country via Skype! I had signed up with an organization called Skype a Scientist earlier this past fall.
This organization matches scientists with teachers who would like to have a scientist talk to their classrooms about their research, maybe related to something they’ve studied in class. Because it’s all conducted via Skype, the scientists and classrooms could be anywhere. I live in Knoxville, TN and the 7th grade classroom I connected with is in Seattle, WA. This was fun because I grew up in the greater Seattle area, so I could talk about the local geology. I got to share with them how growing up in the shadow of volcanoes, experiencing earthquakes as a kid, and learning about the glacial ice sheets that used to cover the land where my family now lives all inspired me to love and learn about geology.
My thesis research here in Knoxville has been on the geomorphology of Mars, which was perfect because this class was just finishing up a unit on Mars geomorphology. The teacher contacted me a couple of weeks before we met via Skype. I sent them some info on my research and the students sent back a list of questions they had for me. The topics of these questions ranged from undergrad vs. grad school to questions about Mars to questions about my favorite rocks or field areas. I was really impressed by the thought they put into these questions and the range of things they were interested in. During the Skype session, I started by answering as many of these questions as I could. This took about half the class time, so the teacher and students then had a chance to ask follow-up questions. The students were very engaged and interested in what I was saying. I was a little nervous beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions or the technology would fail on us, but it went really well and we all agreed it would be fun to do again. If you are a teacher or scientist I would totally recommend checking it out!
If you are interested in signing your class up, or a researcher interested in talking to a classroom, you can sign up for Skype a Scientist here!
A year ago I got the chance to visit the Grand Canyon National Park. I had been there once as a toddler, but of course I didn’t remember it, so I was very excited to have the opportunity to go again now, especially since I’ve been studying geology for a few years. The Grand Canyon is like Disneyland for geologists. There are SO many cool geologic processes and so much geologic time represented there (click here for a fun read on the geology).
We were staying in Flagstaff, AZ for a conference, but my colleague and I had a free day before it started and since the Grand Canyon is only an hour and a half away we decided to just hop in the car and go. We started off early in the morning so we could try and beat the heat. When we arrived we headed straight to the rim.
It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I had seen pictures of the canyon, but nothing prepared me for what it was actually like to stand there in person. We walked up to the rim with our eyes on the ground so we would see it all at once. When we got close enough we looked up and were utterly speechless for at least a minute. It was so worth it. The Grand Canyon is so big. Like, SO BIG. Apart from all the cool geology, it is a really amazing view.
One of the coolest things about the Grand Canyon (besides the size) is how you can really see textbook examples of geologic concepts displayed in a way that anyone can see. For example, the Great Unconformity is a famous example of an unconformity – a place where rocks were deposited or uplifted and then some time passed and/or erosion occurred before more rocks were deposited. The Great Unconformity is the place where the beautiful sedimentary rock layers that make up most of the Grand Canyon are deposited on top of older metamorphic and igneous rocks. The distinct sedimentary rocks layers we see exposed in the canyon help geologists understand what the environment was like at different times in the past. After all these rocks were deposited, the canyon itself was carved out by the Colorado River starting at least 6 million years ago (click here for more information), resulting in the Grand Canyon we see today.
A note from the editor (Jen): I wholeheartedly agree with this description, the view is beyond breathtaking. It takes a while to soak in the awe inspiring beauty. Time is so often taken for granted but when you can see so much time in the rocks, it gives you a new perspective.
This summer I got the chance to hang out with local elementary school students and do cool science experiments. I was one of several volunteers from 500 Women Scientists KnoxPod, an organization dedicated to science outreach and opportunities for fellowship for women scientists, and we partnered with the local Freedom Schools Program, a national summer literacy program for at-risk and minority youth. As part of our partnership, we came up with some fun experiments and demonstrations of various scientific topics to get our students engaged and interested in science.
Our main goals were to show the students that anyone can do science and that the ideas of science affect our daily lives in many ways. Since we had never done this before, it involved a lot of Google searching and trying to find ways to do experiments that were fun and doable for a range of ages and abilities of students. It was helpful that the students we worked with were divided into upper and lower elementary age groups, so we could have some activities involving more reading for the older kids. But both groups were very impressive with their understanding and retention of the ideas, even remembering things we had talked about much earlier in the summer!
One of the most rewarding moments was when one of the girls who had seemed kind of shy and reserved during the earlier sessions came up to me one day and told me that she wants to be a scientist when she grows up! By the end of the summer there were other kids too who would cheer when I walked in, declare that science was their favorite subject, and try to sit as close to me as possible. This made me feel like all the hours spent preparing lessons were totally worth it. I had never done any sort of K-12 classroom presentation before so it was also a really great opportunity to get more practice explaining the concepts of science in an accessible way.
Below are pictures from when we made a pendulum and added paint to make some art and show patterns of pendulum swinging and their causes.
One of my favorite events every year is called the Planetary Geologic Mappers Meeting. This is a meeting held annually at which all scientists with a NASA grant to do geologic mapping come and present updates on their maps. It’s really cool because there are maps not just of well-known or major planetary bodies (Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Moon) but also of smaller or less well-known bodies, including asteroids, dwarf planets, and several moons of planets in the solar system. Earth is of course a planet too, but to distinguish science done on and about earth from that done about any other place in the solar system or universe, everything not on Earth is called “planetary” and Earth-specific research is termed “terrestrial”. The main point of this meeting is to update NASA, although it has also become a place to get feedback and support from the USGS Astrogeology mapping support team and fellow mapping scientists, but it’s also a great opportunity for students to network and learn more about planetary geologic mapping.
This meeting is very small, generally less than 50 attendees, unlike the big geology conferences like GSA (Geological Society of America) and AGU (American Geophysical Union). This means that even though this was only my third time attending, I was familiar with many of the people there and what they were doing. There were a number of new faces this time, which is very exciting. It’s always fun when people start doing planetary mapping for the first time, and the community is very welcoming of new-comers and willing to help.
This year it was held in our department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. My advisor, Dr. Devon Burr, was the local organizer this year, so I got a chance to see everything that goes into hosting a conference like this. It was great fun to welcome all the mappers to Knoxville. I’ve made a few friends at this meeting over the years and I loved the chance to show them around my city.
The first two days are poster and oral presentations. One person from each mapping team gives an oral presentation on their project, with some time for questions they have for other mappers or thoughts and questions from the mappers and USGS mapping staff. Most mapping teams also have posters of their maps. There is lots of time built into the schedule for poster presentations and networking. There are teams of mappers from different universities or institutions who use this time to meet and discuss their work in person rather than phone or e-mail as they usually have to do during the school year. It’s also a good time for student mappers to ask more experienced mappers or those with expertise in a particular field for advice and feedback on their projects.
The first night we had a social and all went out for dinner at a local restaurant. It was a great break from all the science we’d been discussing. We got a chance to catch up and talk about where we’re all living and working, show off pictures of our pets and families, etc. It’s good as scientists to take time to appreciate each other as humans too with lives outside of our jobs each day. While this meeting is short and sweet, it’s always great fun and I look forward to the next one!
One of the famous first stories of modern geology involves the publishing of a geologic map of England by William Smith in 1815. This was one of the first geologic maps made by a geologist doing fieldwork, which often involves camping out in an area for a few days, weeks, or months to find out as much as possible about the area to be mapped. Geologists walk around the area to be mapped and take measurements of what types of rocks are there, how thick each layer is, whether they are tilted or faulted, etc. They may also take samples of the rocks to do chemical tests or look at them under a microscope. Field geologists look at the morphology (shape) of the landscape in order to map the locations of ridges, depressions, and other features and determine the processes that formed them.
My experiences in geology as an undergraduate major were largely field-based, going on many field trips to various places and taking notes and measurements at different locations. But how do you make a map when your field area is on average 140 million miles (225 million km) away from Earth? I had never considered studying geology in a field area anywhere other than Earth, but shortly after starting my master’s degree I had the opportunity to work with a team of collaborators to create a geologic map of a small region on Mars. Geologists can now create maps of planets, moons, and asteroids using high-resolution images from spacecraft orbiting Mars, Mercury, the Moon, and many other bodies in our solar system. I was excited to begin this project, but first I had to learn a whole new set of skills than what I had used in field camp as an undergrad.
There are several software programs scientists can use to make maps using images and other types of geospatial data. These software programs are collectively called Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS software is used in many different fields for different kinds of projects and analyses. For example, biologists might use GIS to make maps of where certain species of animals live in relation to cities, lakes, highways, etc. Geologists might use GIS to produce maps showing the location of certain types of rocks or geologic features.
For my master’s project, I used a mosaic (several images digitally “stitched” together) of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) Context Camera (CTX). To identify a feature in these spacecraft images, it needs to be big enough to have at least two pixels across it each way (so a minimum 2×2 grid). CTX images of Mars have a resolution of 6 meters (m) per pixel, which means they can be used to find features about the size of a large room. When I upload these images into my GIS program, I can zoom in and out to see features better. When I find a feature that looks interesting, I can mark its location and shape by making a new “layer” and drawing on the image. I use different layers for different types of features, and each layer can be turned on and off so I can see where different features are in relation to each other.
My first step in mapping was actually not mapping, but reading lots of previously published papers about the geology of my study area and about the particular type of feature I wanted to map. I am mapping a type of ridge on Mars called a wrinkle ridge. This ridge is formed by tectonic contraction and is found in layered igneous or sedimentary rock units. Once I had read as many papers as I could find on wrinkle ridges and made several tables summarizing the various types of information on them, I could finally start mapping. It took quite a while for my eyes to get used to looking at these images and to pick out the features I was looking for. However, wrinkle ridges have several common distinguishing characteristics, mentioned in many published papers, that I used to double-check my visual identification. When I had gone over my whole study area several times and marked any feature I thought could possibly be what I was looking for, I went over it again and narrowed down the number of features using my list of common characteristics. Learning to identify wrinkle ridges and other features visually is a good skill and I spent a great deal of time trying to do so. However, it is also important to make my results understandable and reproducible by other scientists. Thus I need to be able to clearly show how I identified a feature as either a wrinkle ridge or not. With my list of common characteristics, I decided how many of them would be required to determine if a feature is a wrinkle ridge, and within those determined to be wrinkle ridges I further divided them by how many characteristics they had into certainty levels: Certain, Probable, and Possible. This process allows my work to be reproduced or at least easily followed by any future scientists studying the same type of features.
I’ve been working on this project for about two years now and while it’s been a lot of hard work and tired eyes, it so rewarding to see my map finally coming together. While I’ve been mapping one type of feature, other scientists in my research group have been mapping different types of features and we are about to put them all together and make one complete map. When we have all our mapping together on one map, it will be published as an official United States Geological Survey (USGS) geologic map. Stay tuned!