Undergraduate geology major, Nicole Grabos, to present research findings at the Geological Society of America’s annual conference taking place October 31 through November 3

As a freshman, Nicole Grabos, an elementary education major at Indiana University Northwest, took an introductory course in geology and quickly realized her strong interest in and passion for the world of geosciences. Putting her desire to obtain her teaching degree on hold, Grabos changed her major and is now currently a sophomore studying geology.

Quickly diving into the geosciences curriculum and taking full advantage of all of the opportunities the field offers, Grabos applied for and accepted a summer research project sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Grabos, joined by seven other undergraduate students from universities across the country, participated in the eight-week field and laboratory study that was sponsored by the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates Program. The project, entitled “Dune Undergraduate Geomorphology and Geochronology (DUGG),” provided students with the rare opportunity to be directly involved in identifying the links between changes in climate and concomitant landscape response by studying the dunes in Whitefish Dunes along the western shore of Lake Michigan in Door County, Wis.

The students gained experience in field work by choosing appropriate sample site locations, proper sediment sampling techniques, and the use of ground-penetrating radar, a technique that allows earth scientists to image sediments in the subsurface.

“We traveled all over the state of Wisconsin, as well as to Nebraska,” Grabos explained, “This project was just as much a research experience as it was a cultural experience. Our core project was that of studying dune chronology, which is the origin of these dunes to understand when they were last active.”

To gain a true understanding of the dune chronology, Grabos and her undergraduate counterparts, conducted optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, which is a way to date beaches. Grabos explained that the OSL dating they conducted served as a way to help them put together the chronology of geological events that formed the Great Lakes.

Another part of the summer research project included the study of geomorphology of the dunes, which is a study of how the landscape was formed by looking at soil development.

“I did a whole lot of research prior to the start of this research project and I thought I knew a sizeable amount,” Grabos said. “But once I got there (Wisconsin), I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. We (undergraduate students) learned a lot of information in a short period, but it stuck because of the hands-on experience.”

Grabos explained that, as a group, they took samples and processed them and then traveled more than 500 miles to Nebraska to further analyze the samples in an OSL laboratory.

“There are only a few OSL labs in the nation, which is why they took samples from the Door Peninsula in Wisconsin and traveled to Nebraska,” explained Kristin Huysken, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Geology and Chairperson of the Department of Geosciences. “This is an experience that is most often reserved for graduate students and professionals.”

Networking opportunity

During the DUGG, Grabos worked alongside several professional geologists, making this summer as much a networking opportunity as a learning process.

J. Elmo Rawling, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Paul Hanson, Ph.D., of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were two of those professionals Grabos enjoyed working alongside. Rawling and Hanson made this opportunity available to undergraduates through a grant with the National Science Foundation.

“Most of the dunes found along the western shore of Lake Michigan have not been studied in detail, and the work conducted by the DUGG students in 2010 is the first to focus on dunes in the region using these techniques,” Rawling said.” In doing so, the students will contribute to our understanding of how dunes have responded to climate change in the past 10,000 years.”

As an IU Northwest professor, Huysken recognizes the endless variety of opportunities and lessons learned that Grabos experienced through this rare, hands-on research project.

“Geology is a very small community nationwide and Nicole is just entering into this community,” Huysken explained. “She (Nicole) will start seeing the same people at conferences year after year, as well as reading scientific papers from these same people. And, just as important, the relationships she has formed with these students will develop into professional relationships down the road.”

The summer project, which was only offered to undergraduate students in the geosciences field, was open to students around the country.

“When you have a small department within a small university, it’s nice to know that your students can compete on a national level,” Huysken said. “It is good for the faculty and the university, but most importantly, these experiences are great for the students.

“If Nicole decides to go on to graduate school, or becomes a professional geologist, this experience is no small thing at the bottom of her resume,” Huysken added. “This is an accomplishment that will show potential employers or graduate schools that she is well-equipped to do geological research.”

The results of the summer research project will be presented at the Geological Society of America’s (GSA) annual conference scheduled on October 31 through November 3. The conference will take place in Denver.

Additional scientists that worked with the students included Erin Argyilan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Geology at IU Northwest and Dave Hart, Ph.D. of the Wisconsin Geologic and Natural History Survey. Argyilan visited the students for a few days and provided expertise on Beach Ridges, as well as helped the students compile their research into posters for the upcoming GSA conference.

IU Northwest is the only university in Northwest Indiana that offers a four-year geosciences degree.

To learn more about the IU Northwest Department of Geosciences, visit http://www.iun.edu/~geos/.

For additional details on the National Science Foundation, go to http://www.nsf.gov/.

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