MENTOR SPOTLIGHT | AUGUST 2015
Describe your research/creative work in a few sentences that we can all understand: My research group uses uranium-lead age determinations and geologic pressure-temperature estimates to study the history of ancient mountain belts, and the source regions and deposition ages of sediments. The main analytical work for this research is done in the excimer laser ICP-mass spectrometry laboratory in Nichols Hall. We work in many places in the USA (Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah) and around the world (e.g. Australia, Brazil, Italy, Tanzania, Turkey) and collaborate with scientists from many other countries.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research/creative work?
A: The first image that comes to mind is one of my earliest childhood memories of being allowed to stay up late to watch the first landing on the Moon. That might sound cheesy, but in hindsight I really think that started something. As an older kid, I read ferociously, a lot of explorer histories. Mixing that with my fascination of my father's stories about the many, many places he visited during his 40 years at sea from fisherman to master of a big oil tanker, I knew I wanted a career that would require me to travel. After high school came the more sobering decision of what subject to choose. I remember I actually made a list of what I wanted and did not want in a job. I somehow narrowed it down to geology, although it was never taught as a separate subject in my high school and none of my family had the slightest association with it. But after the first semester I was already hooked.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: They get hands-on experience with collecting and processing samples, and then acquiring and also assessing the data. The laser ablation - mass spectrometer combination is a fairly complex set-up, so that is a challenge, but to run the machines is a far cry from just hearing about the results and interpretations in a class. It is a stony path (pun intended) from rock sample to the interpretation of the geological event we study, but it hones many skills that I think are important as a professional (setting up and following procedures, trouble-shooting and critical assessment of data, optimization of workflow etc.).
Being able to work in a laboratory and acquire your own data hands-on opens many possibilities beyond having samples sent out for analyses elsewhere. Whenever we need additional data from other laboratories, I try to get the students to go there and do it themselves or at least be there when the data is acquired, which widens their horizon and gives them the chance to network with other scientists and students.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research/creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: Geology is about time. Getting that time information in collaboration with and for other geoscientists that have their own specialization is really exciting for me. I started my geology undergrad 32 years ago and I am still completely fascinated by the scale of geological changes both in time and space that made Earth and the other planets what they are today. Being able to contribute some pieces to this big 4-D puzzle (3 spatial dimensions and time) is both a strong motivator and a very humbling experience.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: Get involved with research early on, through paid or voluntary work in laboratories, or undergraduate research. Talk to faculty and your graduate student TAs about their research and tell them what you are interested in to find out if you have common interests. Read research articles beyond the textbooks you are assigned for the class (even if you don't get beyond the title, abstract and figures).
Q: For many students, doing research is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Have you developed any tricks or habits that help you to stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: I have to think a bit about a time when it did go as expected! I set up a new laboratory when I got to KU and a lot of things did not go as expected. I think I am tenacious (stubborn) by nature, and I have known that for a long while. A good dose of never-give-up stubbornness is essential to do scientific research, where rewards often come very long after the initial work has begun. There are usually years between starting a project and getting results published. It helps that I love the fieldwork (getting the samples), that I get really excited about doing the analyses themselves and "playing" with the instrumentation, and I really enjoy giving presentations about new results, so all those steps break the big goal down into smaller increments, and that helps. "Don't look at the top of the mountain you want to climb, look at where you put your feet," so to speak.
Especially for students, I always try to create projects that have a Plan B, so that if the main goal cannot be achieved there is another goal that we are more certain can be achieved. Aim high and make sure there is one or several lower goals that are more sure-fire. That is a good strategy for any kind of project.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: Outside is the key word: riding bicycle and motorcycles, hiking, and generally traveling and visiting new places are on the top of my list. I do a bit of trail running, but I also love to just hang out with friends, preferably around a bbq or fire-pit, with some good food involved.