So…what exactly ARE you doing?

I’m writing this particular post for several reasons. The first is to try to show people what I’m doing in my current research project at the IRM. The second is that by providing a detailed explaination to other people of what I’m doing, it helps organize my thoughts. Finally, it also provides a documentation of what I’m doing that I will be able to go back and refer to later on. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments.

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite. – Paul Dirac

Like most undergraduate research projects, this didn’t begin of my own volition. I recieved an email asking if any undergrads wanted to do research with Subir Banerjee. I had my introductory geology course with Subir and was looking for a chance to do some research, so I jumped at it. This was in the spring of 2005.

Outside of some introductory geology courses, I knew nothing about geomagnetism. No undergrads really know anything about it, so I wasn’t too worried. (an interesting aside, one of my former debaters and employees, Shane Colin, used to work here on their computer systems. I used to give him crap all the time about what the hell rock magnetism was. Well, look who’s getting the last laugh)

The project was to begin in the summer, but as I was going to be unable to do anything for seven weeks during the summer due to field camp, I had to start the project in August when I got back. Come August, I was sort of thrown to the wolves. The IRM staff was pretty helpful, but I had to learn a lot of it on my own. I was given a copy of Environmental Magnetism by Evans and Heller, the Hitchhikers Guide to Magnetism, and told to ask if I had any questions. It wasn’t as bad as I make it sound, but the impetus for learning was definately on my shoulders…and still is.

The reason why I’m doing a project in the first place is so I can graduate with Latin Honors and so I can also get honest to goodness science guy type research experience before I enter grad school. My grades were good enough at the start of the Fall semester that I was on track to graduate Summa Cum Laude, but with the disaster which was November and my inner ear thing, I may have to settle for a lower rank. Either way, I still have to do a project.

In spring of 2005 I was asked by Subir if I was interested in going to Argentina. It took all of 2 seconds to say “yes”. In Argentina, we collected samples of paleosol, loess, and topsoil from the area outside of Cordoba.

Each sample represented 5cm of “dirt” (paelosol, loess, soil) for about 20m. We ended up with an entire profile going down the entire 20m. We had about 100kg of samples to bring back in total. All the samples were brought back in small plastic bags in large nylon gym bags. We looked like drug runners.

The photo below shows how we took our samples. The sample area was a ravine during the wet season, so we could get access to the soil column going down pretty far. We would carve out a section several cm horizontally to remove any soil which may have been exposed to the air and oxidized. We used either a garden spade or a cut out brass pipe to dig the soil our in bands going up the column. You could tell if you were in a section of loess or paleosol by how hard it was. It was very easy to dig out loess, paleosol was very hard.

I traveled to Argentina with Dr. Ramon Egli, who is from Switzerland. In a burst of American machismo, I’d use my American berzerkerfury skill in digging out dirt which earned me the nickname “SuperGary” from our Argentinean collegues. I explained my skill by paraphrasing The Third Man: “Americans put a man on the moon while the Swiss can only build cookoo clocks and watches” 🙂

The purpose of the Argentina trip was not for my research project. We collected far more than I will be using for my project. Arriving back in the US, I still had to come up with a worthy area of research. Its hard to do independent of an advisor, because unless your familiar with the literature, its hard to know exactly what needs researching.Subir pointed out that there is a well documented correlation between precipitation levels and Magnetic susceptibility in soil. What is not understood is why. It could be due to bacteria in the soil which creates magnatite, or it could be due to inorganic processes. That’s the elevator pitch version of what I’m trying to do.

I was supposed to begin working on the Argentina samples during the Fall semester, but due to the oft mentioned inner ear thing, I wasn’t able to do anything. This week I finally began work on the soil samples. Currently I’m preparing samples so they can be used by the equipment in the lab. This means taking the soil and packing it into 1 cubic cm plastic cubes. I will also be packing soil into gelcaps and packing the gelcaps into drinking straws later on. This is the unglamorous part of science they never tell you about when your watching the Science channel.

Here is the prep area where I have to get the samples ready. The computer is connected to the database where all the data on each sample is collected. The glass box thing is a digital scale which is connected to the computer to put the weight of each sample directly into the database.

This is one of the samples collected in Argentina. The dirt is pretty chunky and needs to be crushed so it packs easier.

Here I’ve taken the sample and crushed it up with a hunk of brass. I use a seperate piece of paper for each sample so I don’t contaminate any sample with material from a previous one.

Here is a finished sample. Weighed, taped up, labeled, and put into the database.

Here is the collection of all the samples I had done as of Wednesday. I’ll prepare about a dozen more and start running some tests on Friday.

I will have more photos over the next few weeks as I progress further on the project.

By Gary

3 dimples. 7 continents. 130 countries.

One reply on “So…what exactly ARE you doing?”

The great irony is that you hired me away from the IRM to start interning at CIS. I left because you paid me more and had a better internet connection.

Now I’m back at the U working in Dan & Allie’s old haunt. What comes around goes around.

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