Archives for the Month of January 2006 on Ramblings of a Geologist

Untangling my thoughts ...

I need to be clearer about my goals.

Long-term:

1. I want to pursue scientific research in graduate school. Broadly, to investigate how the Earth works: how oceans, atmosphere, and land interact.

2. I want my work to have a positive impact on the human relationship with the environment.

3. I would rather be a scientist with the power to influence environmental policy than a lawyer or a politician.

4. I am interested in human influences on nature, but I also believe that understanding the Earth's history (pre-humans) is crucial to understanding what is happening now, and to predicting what will happen in the future (in terms of climate change).

Short-term:

1. I want to choose a program at Cambridge for next year that will best fulfill my needs/interests.

2. I need to choose an advisor and a research project that will help me develop technical skills and gain a better understanding of paleoclimate and environmental research methods.

Right now, I am leaning towards a project that explores the Ge/Si ratio in continental runoff (rivers and groundwater) and in ocean water/sediments as a proxy for continental weathering. In other words, the goal of the project is to find out if this ratio depends on the break-down of rocks, physically and chemically. Another aspect of the work is to find out how plants affect weathering, and if there is an isotopic "fingerprint" that we can learn to recognize as a plant signal. If this is true, then we can "go back in time" by studying ancient sediments and their chemical composition. If we find a certain ratio of Ge/Se, and likewise if we can find that "fingerprint," then (hopefully) we could say something about how much the continents were weathering at certain times in the Earth's history. And also explain WHY (which is a big thing for most geologists ... they why of everything).

This work would be important because continental weathering rates strongly affect the amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere, which affects global temperature. If we can figure out what was happening in the past, then we have a better chance of understanding how the Earth's climate is changing now, and how it will continue to change in the future.

Today's dilemma: Do I want my future research/career to have a human component? Specifically, should I do an MPhil in Quaternary Science or an MPhil by research thesis at Cambridge?

Do I want to study the Earth, just the Earth, and work on things like paleoclimate reconstruction? Understanding the Earth system ... past, present, and perhaps future?

Or, do I want my work to bridge the divide between science and policy? To include the human factor in the equation, and do work that has a more direct impact on people's relationship with the environment?

In short, do I want to go the hard-core science track or the more political environmental policy track? Can I do both?

I've just been offered a full scholarship to Cambridge University next year. For the past few days I have been absolutely over the moon with happiness (although the scholarship doesn't mean I am officially admitted to the University yet ... it's a confusing proecess). I applied for an MPhil in Quaternary Science (like a masters degree) in the Geography department, but the Cambridge professors I have been emailing with are encouraging me to switch to the MPhil by Research thesis option, offered in the Earth Sciences department.

I have a technical, scientific background, and already have some experience with research. One prof suggested to me that the QS courses would be a review for me, and that working on a research thesis would teach me much more.

I'm torn.

On one hand, I love working on my senior thesis project. I learn more figuring things out in my lab and talking with my advisor than I do in class. I think doing a more intense research project at Cambridge would give me lots of great technical skills and experience ... maybe even produce a paper. On the other hand, I want to take advantage of the classes they offer, to learn about Quaternary Science from a different point of view (that of a geographer's?), to interact with more students, etc. Some profs I've talked to think that geography is "touchy-feely" ... but I think that the human factor is crucial to any modern climate/environmental work, and is fascinating in its own right. It all comes down to: do I want to spend time in the Earth Sciences dept. or the Geography dept.? I don't know much about how they are different at Cambridge, so now I am trying to do some research ... to find out what kinds of papers they are publishing, and figuring out which is a better fit for me. The problem is ... to figure out where is best for me, I need to know what my goals are.

More to come on this later ...

Welcome to Ramblings of a Geologist. Here, I will ...

1) Write about my senior project analyzing Lake Erie sediments, which will hopefully clarify my thoughts. Lake Erie's history is fascinating but not well-understood. Even people who have been studying it their whole careers aren't sure what's going on.

2) Figure out a good research project to do while I'm working on Lake Tanganyika (Tanzania) this summer. I'll be there for 7 weeks, living in a field station with American and African students.

3) Explore potential subjects that I might specialize in during graduate school. I've applied to several oceanography/lake studies programs, and will soon have to choose a more specific research path.

I will also throw in some thoughts on science and nature and other subjects that will inevitably come up as I go.