In the Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Remote, yes. Uncomfortable, maybe. Dull, definitely not for geology students

Youth has its advantages – especially if you’re a continent. Just as kids’ memories are sharper than adults’ because they haven’t been around as long, so it is with Asia, the youngest continent. Its shorter life span makes discovering its history much easier. Asia’s youthfulness makes it a good location for geologists who study the structure and development of the earth’s crust.

So that’s where Dr. Lisa Lamb took three of her undergraduate geology students last summer. Their destination: the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia. Remote, yes. Uncomfortable, maybe. But dull? Definitely not.

Tiffani Navratil, Rebeka Poier and Justin Tweet traveled with Lamb for a three-week field season. They flew into Beijing, China, and later joined Gombosuren Badarch, a professor from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, and Jaga Oyunjargal, one of his top students. The crew of 10 included a small Mongolian support staff.

After traveling for four days by truck over bumpy trails and rough terrain – complete with one carsick passenger – they reached their destination near the village of Shin Jinst in the Gobi Desert. Because the location is so remote, few geologists have studied the area.

Why study in Mongolia?

The geology of Mongolia is very interesting,” said Lamb, assistant professor and chair of the St. Thomas Geology Department. “Mongolia, which is between Russia and China, used to be surrounded by ocean. It became sandwiched between the two about 250 to 450 million years ago. Since Asia is the youngest continent, Mongolia is a good place to figure out the process of how continents were formed.” (Asia was formed in the last 600 million years, compared to 2 to 4 billion years ago when the other continents were formed. In Minnesota, the oldest rocks are 3.6 billion years old and are found near Morton, southwest of the Twin Cities.)

Navratil and Poier collected structural data by mapping the location of various Paleozoic rock types and the ways in which these rocks had broken and bent over time. Tweet collected igneous rock samples for radiometric dating to determine their absolute age. The faculty worked closely with the students, planning, mapping and collecting data.“

The students’ work will help determine part of the history of the growth of central Asia during the last 400 million years,” said Lamb, who had previously traveled to Mongolia four times. “Their data is crucial to understanding how the Asian continent has grown through time.”

A tent without Snickers

Lamb said it wasn’t hard to convince students to go on the trip. “All of them had done field work before but it was a hard adjustment because of the primitive conditions,” she said. No e-mail or phone contact made the students a little homesick.

And then there were the extreme temperatures. “The first two days were windy, rainy and in the 40s,” Lamb said. “Five days later it was boiling hot and in the 90s.”

“One inconvenience was not having tap water,” Tweet said. “We drank from a pump with a filter and that tasted fine because it was coming from a well.” Mongolians who live in the desert are nomads and move every few months. They set up their gers (tent homes) near established wells.

One luxury was having two cooks travel with them. “I’m vegetarian,” Poier said, “so on this trip I thought, ‘I’ll just have to eat meat.’ But I didn’t. They made me vegetarian meals (pancakes and pastas). I also craved Snickers candy bars, so they put a candy bar in the lunches they packed for us.”

Each morning, the group would gather for breakfast and then head out to the mountains with their lunch bags and tools.

Their tools were few and lightweight: rock hammers, Brunton compasses to measure the orientation of the rock layers, magnifying glasses to see the minerals in rocks, all-purpose knives, fieldbooks to record observations, map boards, topographic maps, and a calculator-sized Global Positioning System. “But the main tool is the brain,” Lamb said.

In the field they examined how the rocks on the earth’s surface were shaped, folded, tilted and scratched, and what minerals were inside them. These all served up clues as to what had happened underground and how the continent was formed.

What they observed were rock surfaces steeply dipping or vertical, so their job was to figure out how the rocks got that way.

The human connection

They also discovered that whether people live in the desert or in the land of 10,000 lakes, they are the same.

“Before I went, I had no concept of Mongolia,” said Poier, a native of Montevideo, Minn., who has traveled to New Zealand for another St. Thomas course and to Colombia. “I found out these people are the same as us. We laughed hysterically at the same things. We were able to communicate although we spoke different languages. The lesson is: Even if you don’t know a place at all, you can go and fit right in,” Poier said. A geology major at St. Thomas, Poier graduated from Augsburg College in December. Through cooperation with the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities, Augsburg students may take classes at St. Thomas and any of the consortium’s three other colleges and universities: Hamline, Macalester and St. Catherine.

“The most memorable part of the trip for me was in Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia,” said Tweet. “We had brought a Frisbee from home that coincidentally had stars and stripes on it so everyone knew where we were from. Beka and I threw the Frisbee in Sukhbaatar Square. Kids came and played keep-away with us.”

“Our biggest challenge was our time constraint,” Poier said. “We had to do so much. We tried to make the most of our 15 days in the field. I had heat exhaustion from trying to do too much in one day.

”The work didn’t end at dusk. “After returning from the field in the evening, we continued our structural data analysis and began to generate geologic maps and to process the samples collected in the field,” said Navratil, a junior who is majoring in geology. She revived St. Thomas’ Geology Club and serves as its president.

“We were doing hard work, so we were tired, mentally and physically,” Tweet, a senior, said. A Cottage Grove native, Tweet is a geology major with a biology minor. He is a Goldwater Scholarship winner and a 1999 National Merit Scholar. His interest in dinosaurs brought him to Mongolia, which is famous for dinosaur bones.

But they did find time for a little relaxation. Tweet played guitar and taught Jaga Oyunjargal, the Mongolian student, how to play Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Poier and Navratil chose reading instead. Poier read Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck and Navratil started on Tolkien’s trilogy.

“I love the energy and enthusiasm of students,” Lamb said. “Most are excited to learn and excel given the right opportunity; it’s so fun to provide this opportunity and watch them build confidence in themselves and their skills. It’s also a fantastic way for me to learn and grow. Students will ask great questions that I don’t know the answer to, providing me a reason to learn something new. They also will let you know when you’re not doing things right and I appreciate the honesty.”

“Lisa helps students get the most out of their experience,” Poier said of Lamb. “She gives you freedom and some direction.”

Part of the expenses for the 2002 trip to Mongolia was paid by a Petroleum Research Fund Grant administered by the American Chemical Society; it helps new faculty establish research programs in subject areas related to the petroleum industry.

Presenting their research

When they returned to Minnesota, the students processed the data and rock samples as independent research projects last fall. Tweet used equipment available from other local colleges to break his rock samples into minerals. Then he used density floats to separate the minerals down to zircons. This allowed for radioisotope dating to determine the age of the rock.

The students presented their findings to the Geological Society of America at its annual meeting in Denver. A Bush Foundation Grant funded their attendance. The meeting was one of the two largest that are held each year, with 6,000 attendees, and most presenters were faculty and graduate students.

Lamb initially visited Mongolia during her first year of graduate school at Stanford University. Her interest continued to grow and she did more research for her dissertation, “Paleozoic Sedimentation, Volcanism and Tectonics of Southern Mongolia.” She received a Ph.D. in geological and environmental sciences from Stanford in 1998. Lamb also has an A.B. degree in Asian Studies from Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.

St. Thomas’ Geology Department is a small one: two full-time faculty – Lamb and her husband, Tom Hickson – and 13 students majoring in the field. A full-time instructor will be added this fall. Before Lamb and Hickson started at St. Thomas, there were four to eight students majoring in geology each year. The Geology Department was founded by the late Jack Brownstein, who taught at St. Thomas for 38 years until his death in 1999.

Navratil wants to be a landscape architect and plans to attend graduate school. Tweet said he plans to earn a doctorate in paleontology. He smiled and added, “And I plan to go back to Mongolia, Canada, Colorado and Utah (the best places for dinosaur excavations). Now that I’ve been to Mongolia, I can go farther.”

Being young can have its advantages – especially if you use that energy and enthusiasm to study what you love – even if it takes you to a tent in the desert without Snickers.