St. Thomas Students, Professors Rock Out From Nevada to Norway

Quick: Name the most important thing Norway and Nevada have in common.

No, don’t worry about what Sesame Street would tell you; sharing the letter “N” isn’t that big of a deal. And, no, a commonality of Marilyn Monroe between Nevada (she visited Vegas, to be sure) and Norway (she’s immortalized there with a statue commemorating a connection through her native father) isn’t it, either.

No, the most significant thing Norway and Nevada have in common is: oil. That’s right. Oil. At least, that’s the most significant thing for the St. Thomas Geology Department these days.

The specifics are very, well, scientific, but the main gist is that certain areas in both places have properties that are – among other reasons – of interest to companies looking for petroleum. So you can imagine why St. Thomas geology professors Thomas Hickson and Jeni McDermott approached the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund and said (a bit more formally), “Hey, we’ve got research that might just interest you.”

There's just a bit more that goes into it, but the results are the best kind of plain: The pair landed $70,000 (Hickson for research in the Lake Mead region of Nevada) and $55,000 (McDermott in western Norway) grants to work with their students on ongoing (Hickson) and new (McDermott) research. Those grants will fund three- and two-year projects, respectively, that could clue us in to tectonic movement that holds significant meaning for human life and safety; provide a better understanding of our climate; give us another viewpoint into life beyond Earth; and, of course, uncover more ever-desired knowledge about oil.

“This is kind of one of those classic geological things, where people might think it’s just about rocks,” Hickson said. “It’s not.”

All-important water in the desert

Hickson knows firsthand the kind of information someone can draw from “looking at rocks.” For more than a decade he has helped run the grant-supported project in the Lake Mead region of Nevada.

Hickson and his students have examined the area’s ancient lake deposits, 10-15-million-year-old bodies that once held Earth’s earliest forms of life: microbialites, which were first around some 3.5 billion years ago. By examining the evidence of ancient life, researchers get a picture of how the climate has changed over time and – as we continue moving toward a carbon-rich climate – how it might be shaped in the future.

The study also has provided glimpses into how the tectonics of the region developed and changed over time, helping shape an idea of what may come next. It also creates a lens to look beyond our own planet: Microbialites are almost certainly the type of life form we would discover has existed on Mars, Hickson said, meaning we could have a better understanding of how life developed there.

Finally, there is significance in the parallel between such lake deposits and another alien world on our own planet: the deep ocean. Microbialite-rich limestone deposits make the best oil, Hickson said, and research on the Nevada deposits helps create an idea of what the deposits thousands of feet beneath the ocean (created when the South American and African continents drifted apart) might look like.

“We’re creating an analog version where we can understand what the (deposits) in the sub-surface might look like,” Hickson said.

All’s not quiet on the western front

Thousands of miles away, McDermott’s study also has roots in the ancient division of land masses. About 50 million years ago, she said, western Norway was attached to Greenland and Canada, and since that split it has been “basically just hanging out.” Such “passive margins” are usually where tectonic activity has run its course and left relative geological peace.

But that’s not what’s happening.

“It should be very similar to Minnesota, with very subdued topography,” McDermott said. “It should be really mellow. But it’s not.”

Instead, there’s significant evidence of continued tectonic activity, a puzzling departure between “what should be” and “what is.”

“If you’re driving through Norwary you look out the window and say, ‘What beautiful mountains.’ If you’re a geologist driving through Norway you say, ‘Why the hell are there mountains here? It makes no sense,’” Hickson said.

McDermott and her students are setting out to make some sense of it. While the grant is awarded for a new, exploratory project, McDermott and her students already have done work with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to map out the area they’re dealing with. The rivers especially help clue them in to what has been going on historically in this region (near Trondheim) and whether – as they suspect – there is actually tectonic activity continuing to dictate things. That knowledge could have application to human safety as we continue to populate the area, as well as help create predictive models for petroleum-seekers who know “passive margins like this are where a majority of oil can be found,” McDermott said.

Research abroad, meaning at home

Both grants require undergraduate participation in the research, which is no diversion from the norm for a department that prides itself on having students involved at the highest level possible.

“One of the reasons our program has been successful is because we integrate undergrad research across the whole curriculum. We embed real research projects into our classes,” Hickson said. “It’s a philosophy of teaching. If you want a student to do what you do, you teach them what you do.”

So, students, such as junior Dan Conrad, take concepts they learn in class and apply it in research “that is exactly like what professionals do.”

“If you’re interested with something in a certain science and there’s research you can do there, it’s a great way to broaden your knowledge and horizons,” he said. “I think of it as preparing me for the real world.”

Conrad and some of his classmates – along with several of Hickson’s students – will have integral roles over the coming years as research continues playing out in both areas. Much of McDermott’s study can be conducted remotely to map out the region she and students are planning to physically explore in summer 2016. Hickson’s research is more consistently hands on; several trips will take place over the next three years, supplemented by lab work back in St. Paul.

“Our department has a reputation for doing this well, knowing how to do it and using students to do it,” Hickson said. “We have this track record and the (grant) reviewers saw that.”

Despite the fact such research delves into issues that play out over the course of millions of years, both Hickson and McDermott said they often talk with their students about how their own contributions - while small in the grand scheme of things - truly make a difference. That message is not lost on Conrad.

“When I graduate it will be cool to look back and say I was one of the first to work on this project with Dr. McDermott,” he said. “That will be great to look back and be one of the first to contribute to something that’s hopefully going on for a long time. That will be very rewarding.”