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 Geologists dig Nevada: research delves into ancient seaway 




Dec. 15, 2009
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Geologists dig Nevada; research delves into ancient seaway

First in a series

. - Tamra Schiappa, associate professor of geography, geology and the environment, and two geology majors, Meghan Rice and Sarah Schattauer, have been working to unravel the geologic history of Nevada.
         Nevada was once the site of an extensive seaway where ancient marine organisms lived. The research trio traveled to Nevada to investigate layers and the fossils preserved in rock to determine the conditions that existed in the ocean basin 300 million years ago. The project embodies Slippery Rock University's commitment to providing student-faculty research opportunities that help students grow and prepare them for graduate school or employment.
            "Learning material in the classroom and from books is something every student at the University goes through," said Rice, from Clarion. "Geology, however, is a field-based discipline. You have to know how to work in the field in order to do any kind of research or possibly work as a geologist for oil, gas or coal companies. Field skills need to be learned and practiced."  
            "The students have really embraced the research experience and benefited in all aspects. In person, they are more confident and their understanding of science has improved. They're going to be very successful," Schiappa said.
           The fossils collected by the researchers and the ones in which they are most interested in are an extinct group of marine mollusks called ammonoids. The squid-like animal lived in a shell. The shell is the only thing preserved as fossils as the animals decayed.
           By studying the fossils, the SRU researchers have determined that the ancient ocean basin changed from a warm-water to a cold-water basin about 290 million years ago.  The researchers are currently trying to determine specific dates by obtaining and analyzing conodont teeth that are preserved within the ammonoid rocks. Conodonts are extinct, soft-bodied scavengers that lived in ancient seas, Schiappa said.
        "Preliminary age dates from the conodont samples indicate that the ocean circulation patterns entering the basin changed sometime around 290 million years ago," she said. "Initially the water circulation patterns were from the south carrying with them warm water ammonoid faunas.  Then sometime around 285 million years ago the ocean circulation patterns switched from the south to the north. These northern currents brought cold water from the arctic region and transported cold water ammonoid faunas with them."  
         The team has also identified a new species of extinct ammonoid from this area. This new species will provide scientists with a better understanding of the evolutionary history of a rare ammonoid family, Schiappa said.
           Rice said she was thrilled when Schiappa approached her last year and asked her to assist in the research. "Knowing that she and I had spoken about getting involved with a professor's research in the past, I was excited," she said.
          Rice said the field trip to Nevada helped her gain a better understanding of plate tectonics [movement of the earth] as well as oceans and seas.  "Roughly 300 million years ago there were basins and islands on what is now the western margin of North America," she said.
         Rice and Schattauer have been using a lab in the Advanced Technology and Science Hall to further their understanding of the rocks and fossil ammonoids. They process the rock samples by crushing and dissolving the material around the fossils with acetic acid.
         "The result is a bucket of ranging pieces of rock from clay sized to gravel sized," Rice said.
          Then they sieve and rinse the rock samples in water and let them dry in an oven. Next they place the samples through heavy liquid to separate the conodonts from the sediment.
            "We pick through them under a microscope, taking out any conodonts. Mainly only their jaw structures are preserved," Rice said.
            Rice said the student-faculty research, especially the field work in Nevada, prepared her for the six-week field camp that SRU requires for a bachelor's in geology.
           "I had never been in the western part of the United States before, so this past summer I was able to travel there with my adviser and a brilliant paleontologist," Rice said. "This is an opportunity that many students won't get, especially those at bigger universities where students probably don't receive as much individual guidance. It is a great feeling and confidence booster to be able to apply what I learned in the classroom to real life."
       She added that the field experience has enhanced her awareness of geologic processes. "I love being able to look at a feature that most people would walk right by, such as a syncline or glacial moraine, and know what formed it, possibly when it was formed, and what the importance of it is," she said. "I enjoy paleontology as well because I love to be able to imagine what an area looked like millions of years ago."
            Schattaeur, from Mars, said she has worked with multiple SRU professors on different research projects. She has participated in field trips to the Fingers Lakes region of New York and likes that the department is highly involved with The Pittsburgh Geological Society.
         "I do have an appreciation for the abundance of opportunity which Slippery Rock University and the department of geography, geology and the environment offers me," Schattauer said. "Not only are personal research expeditions offered with all of our professors, the department also offers trips and educational sessions outside the classroom to all students who are interested."
           Rice and Schattaeur plan to present their findings at the Geological Society of America meeting this March in Baltimore, the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in April and at SRU's Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity during spring semester.
          Meanwhile, Schiappa and Schattaeur are writing a manuscript for the juried Journal of Paleontology and both students are writing a paper for the Journal of Undergraduate Research.
          Schiappa said her students have demonstrated tremendous growth as scientists because of the collaboration. "It has improved their professionalism in the classroom, the way the produce assignments, the way they address the content area and the way they ask questions," she said.
            The research experience will also give them an advantage over many other geology students when they graduate in May. "They're going to come out as graduates with a publication record. They will have presented at a national meeting, and they will have a manuscript that they have written for a professional journal," Schiappa said.


Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.


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