Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Spring 2016: Semester Summary

Second semester done! How many more to go? Hmm...

All in all, an eventful semester. As it went on I started to get a better idea of the kinds of questions and approaches I'll be applying to my study area this summer. Before I move on to that, here were some of my highlights for the last 4 months.

Karst Waters Institute (KWI) Conference in Puerto Rico

Just a few weeks into the semester, I flew down to San Juan for the KWI Conference on "Karst, Groundwater Contamination, and Public Health." Since karst hydrology has been my focus since my master's, and I had worked as a drinking water protection hydrologist for a few years, this meeting was right up my alley. Also, couldn't really complain about a chance to leave behind the cold late-January Philadelphia for a warm Puerto Rico.

Land in sight!

I was surprised how short the flight was (3-4 hours?), although I guess in my mind I'm just used to everything being far away from Minnesota (especially warm places). After checking in to the hotel and running into some other people we knew (my advisor also came with), we went to go explore the area around the hotel.

Exploring the neighborhood around the hotel in San Juan

Some local wildlife up in some cannon tower/fort along the shore

Dr. Toran couldn't pass up the chance to test the water (although not in the scientific sense)

Conference selfie

It was a multi-day confernce, involving a few days of talks followed by a short field-trip exploring the island's karst regions. I enjoyed most of the talks, and as far as topics go I think I got a lot out of it. Not only that, but it was a good chance to network with a number of people I've only ever known as citations from papers I've read. I had even talked a good friend and former colleague from the health department to come for the conference!

Bus-buddies for the trip: MDH Represent!

I thoroughly enjoyed the multi-day field trip (even though the stop to Aricebo Observatory was scrapped due to maintenance). We got to see plenty of other sites, though:

Some areas were covered with pointy hills, called "mogotes," which were specific to karst landscapes. Or, as I called these areas, they were "totes magotes"

Down into a very deep sinkhole, apparently with it's own cloud-forming layer.

Into the caves!

Spotting some cave drip formations

A shot from one cave overlooking a valley - none of the photos really did this view any justice

PhD Preliminary Exam

With the Puerto Rico conference out of the way, I was able to move on to another more pressing issue - my PhD Preliminary Exam near the end of the semester. This process involved identifying a topic related to the research I'll be doing (but not so applicable as to be the same) to write a paper on, and then give a presentation to the department faculty and my committee. From what I gathered, the idea behind the exam is to determine our ability to (mostly-independently) delve into a research topic, digest the material, identify limitations, and pose potential research routes.

The topic I ended up choosing (along with help from my advisor) was in the application of stable isotopes of hydrogen, oxygen, and strontium in groundwater studies. At first I thought that was fairly specific enough, but towards the end (and especially after writing the paper) I figured out that this was still too broad of a topic. I eventually narrowed it down to focusing on determining storage and flow in the epikarst zone.

My presentation went for about 30 minutes (this wasn't too difficult - I actually like preparing PowerPoint presentations, and I have a fairly good understanding of karst by now), and most of the department faculty were there. Isotope geochemistry was a fairly new field of research for me, so although I learned a lot in order to give the presentation, I knew I had some fairly large knowledge gaps. But that was okay - if I already knew all of this, what would be the point? I fully understood that these limitations were a part of the process, and if anything I took them as proof that I had genuinely picked a "fresh" topic for me to explore.

After that talk came the 30 minutes of open questions from anyone else in the room. I thought that went fairly well. Some things I got, some things I'm sure I didn't explain perfectly - but that's okay. We're all there to find out where my weaknesses are. In my mind, if I couldn't answer any questions thrown my way, then I failed, but if I could easily answer every question thrown my way, then the department has failed. It felt like a good middle ground.

After that came the ~2 hours of questions from my three committee members. That was a little more rough, mostly because I had been standing and talking for nearly 3 hours by the end, so my voice was getting a little hoarse and I was starting to feel a bit tired. Most of the questions came from our department's geochemist, Dr. Grandstaff (aka "G"), who I had just taken a course with the semester before (so I should know all this...). He didn't hold anything back and had fairly high expectations. He tripped me up more than anyone else, and there were plenty of awkward silences while I was trying to work out a suitable answer. He reminded me very much of my old boss and aviation advisor at Winona, Dr. George Bolon. Knowing this fact helped me calm down a bit, as I was very familiar with this style of academic grilling.

Oddly enough, despite all the papers, studying, and practice talks, one thing that really saved me in a pinch was this game I had gotten earlier on in the semester called Ion: A Compound Building Game. It was a Kickstarter game in which you score points by building chemical compounds through mixtures of cations, anions, and noble gases. I had been playing it for a few weeks before my exam, and I really got a kick out of how many combinations of the cards produced actual compounds (and minerals!). At one point during my exam I was asked to write out a chemical formula of anhydrite, which I had remembered being calcium sulfate (CaSO4), thanks to the card game. I highly recommend it!

Thanks, Ion!

Despite the stress, lack of sleep, and feeling like I should have known things I didn't, I thoroughly enjoyed the Prelim Exam process. Isotope geochemistry was not exactly my strongest subject, but I feel like I have a much better grasp on it now than I did before (wait, I'm here to learn things???). I passed the exam and most of the department seemed to have no major qualms with me staying. Afterward, G told me to go enjoy a beer (a sure sign of a well-meaning academic, despite the grilling). From what I gathered, my experience differed quite a bit from the other PhD students, unfortunately, and for a while I had some lingering guilt for actually having a good time.

PA Groundwater Symposium Conference

With the Prelim Exam out of the way, I was again free to focus my attention on other pressing matters (that seemed to be the theme of this semester). I was giving a presentation at the Pennsylvania Groundwater Symposium in State College just a few weeks after my prelim exam, so again I had another presentation to prepare for. Including with my Ecohydrology final presentation, I gave something like 4 or 5 talks on different aspects of karst this semester. Phew!

I was giving a talk on some of the long- and short-term temperature data that had been collected from the springs in my study area over time (some more recently collected by me, some about 10 years old collected from previous research, and some collected in the late 1960's). It was kind of fun comparing the trends we were seeing now with what they had seen before, although now we had the miracle of high-frequency data loggers!

The highest of tech

TA Duties

This was my second time (and final for the time-being) being a graduate teaching assistant at Temple. This semester I had two sessions of Physical (intro) Geology lab, and I was also the TA for the Remote Sensing/GIS course. 

Teaching the intro geology lab was essentially the same good experience as from last semester. Since we were using the same lab manual, and taught things in generally the same order as last semester, nearly all my planning had been done. Since I was mostly helping out (rather than planning) the GIS labs, that didn't involve as much extra time on my part, either. Both of these things really helped the semester go smoothly, especially considering all the presentations I had to prepare.

I had just gotten a new smart phone and decided to play around with the a time-lapse app for it to make some fun videos of food coloring dye flowing through our aquifer simulator sand tank:


Dr. Nyquist had just gotten some new smart-phone-attachable thermal cameras, and had asked me to take a look on figuring them out. The thermal camera app also had a time-lapse function, and it actually worked out really neat to see a plume of warm water flowing through the sand tank:


While not exactly a time-lapse, I did bring in the slinky to demonstrate different earthquake waves. One of my students had a slow-motion app on their phone and captured this cool shot of the slinky in action:


While out setting up some data loggers, I took along the thermal camera to explore it's ability to find springs. Actually came in fairly useful! Since it was fairly cold out when I went out, surface water cooled quickly, while any springs flowing up from underground were relatively warm. This made it easy to find spring seeps along banks of rivers, where the water flowing out of the spring was in thermal contrast with the stream, even if the flow wasn't especially obvious:


Geology Cake

End of the semester: need I say more? Another success!

Geology cake!

Eventful semester! Now that summer is underway, I'm in full research mode, and will be visiting my sites more frequently, setting up data loggers and auto-samplers and analyzing the data as it comes in. We also brought on an undergraduate (a former student in my intro geology lab) to do summer research with us and to take on some of the work we wouldn't be able to get to without the extra help.

I'll be doing my best to post a little more frequently (which also means shorter posts!), so stay tuned!