Bryn Mawr Geology Microgravity Team

I wanted to take a minute to post about a cool project some students in the geology department are pursuing. Under the guidance of a faculty advisor, they’ve formed the “microgravity team” to research a project through NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.

They hope to fly in NASA’s “Vomit Comet” in order to measure the porosity of Martian soil simulant. The entire flight of the Vomit Comet would allow us to experience a range of microgravity levels, including the specific gravity of Mars. At Mars’ gravity we would be able to measure the exact porosity of Martian soil with the spectrometer. With the exact measurement of the porosity of Martian soil, researchers would be able to understand the surface of Mars more and uncover more knowledge about water on Mars.

The Vomit Comet is a reduced gravity aircraft flies a parabolic curved pathway which allows for thirty seconds of hypergravity as the aircraft is reaching the top of the curve to be felt and 18 seconds of microgravity as the aircraft is descending from the top of the curve. Hypergravity is exceeds the force of Earth’s gravity which would leave us feeling heavy and make it hard to even lift a hand. On the other hand, microgravity would leave us completely weightless with the image of the floating astronaut as a perfect visual.

NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to propose, design, fly, and evaluate an original experiment in microgravity. The whole process from writing the proposal to running the experiment in microgravity is entirely done by students. NASA provides an exciting opportunity for student growth not only within the program team members, but also in the students that our involved in the outreach activities. Science is given the opportunity to inspire and excite the future generations of scientists.

You can read more about their project on their Microgravity blog!


Here’s the team posing for a picture after an early morning meeting–Anna, Christina, Mary, Hannah, Alice, Simona, Danyelle, and Selby!



Geology then and now

Today I came across some photocopies of letters home from a Bryn Mawr sophomore geology major in 1918.  In it, the student thanks her mother for sending her homemade ambrosia candy and talks about a geology field trip she just got home from. If you’ve been reading my blog you should know by know that I love geology field trips, so of course I got excited when I saw it.

Here’s an excerpt I found especially interesting/funny–the student is talking about her professor who led the trip:

“…managed beautifully. It can’t be easy for the young man (he’s only about thirty-five) to engineer sixteen girls through all sorts of changes of trains, etc. And he never lost his composure for a second. Everything went just according to schedule. That was the case with the Valley Forge trip too. I say if you want anything done, get a MAN to do it. I like Dr. Wright very much. No one could be more polite and obliging to everyone than he is. He knows a lot too.”

Given the history of the geology department, I found this excerpt funny— “if you want anything done, get a man to do it”!

Ironically, our department was founded by Florence Bascom…here she is with her Brunton compass, dressed ready for the field.

Florence Bascom, in addition to being a cool lady, was a pioneer for women scientists. She was the first woman to be granted a phD from Johns Hopkins University, and, at the time, the only woman in the US to hold a doctorate in geology. In 1895 she founded BMC’s geology department.

Here’s a silkscreen a Bryn Mawr alum made commemorating our awesome history. The print was made during a printmaking class she took during her senior year. The alum is currently working for the New Jersey Geological Society–I was lucky enough to hear her speak about her current research a few semesters ago when she presented at Bryn Mawr.

When Florene Bascom started the department, she was certain that students received training not only in classrooms, but also in the field. The Valley Forge trip the student refers to still happens today–every student who takes geo 101 goes there to study in the field. Here’s a clipping from our student newspaper that my friend Kersti who works in special collections sent me. The article is from 1958.

The Marine Geology class I am in had a field trip this weekend. We went to Island Beach State Park in New Jersey. It was a fun trip, and hopefully these photos will prove that geology students today certainly don’t need a man to do something right!


Mary digging at trench at the beach.

Don and Anna taking a core.

So whether it’s in 1985, 1918, 1958, or last weekend, field trips have always been a cornerstone of our department from its beginning.

And, I’m pretty sure some of the other major departments might get a little jealous sometimes.

Here’s one more of my favorite clippings–it’s not from the College newspaper and I’m not sure of the date, but it’s still pretty cool. It says, “Are these Bryn Mawr students America’s brainiest girls?” And there’s a photo of a Mawrtyr in a paleontology lab.

Field trips aren’t just for elementary school…

One of the reasons I love my major so much is that for every geology class offered, there is a field trip component that goes along with it. We get to actually see what we are learning in the field instead of in a powerpoint slide or a textbook. This is also one of the reasons I decided not to go abroad–as a geology major, we get to travel a lot anyway!

Last weekend was the invertebrate paleobiology field trip. My class went to Calvert Beach in Maryland to stay the night and look at Miocene-aged cliffs and poke around looking for fossils. Even though it was a bit wet and rainy, we had a lot of fun.

Above are some of my classmates looking at the fossils, and below is a close-up of what they are looking at! The first is an internal mold of a bivalve (not the actual shell, but an impression of the shell in the sediment), and the second are really tiny gastropod shells.

We also spent some time looking for shark’s teeth on the beach. Here’s one tiny one that I found.

The next step was to take the samples we collected back to the lab to clean them and identify them. Then the class will compile their work so we can use them to help us with our individual research papers which we will be working on for the rest of the semester.

Here’s some pictures from back in the lab.


My cleaned samples that I collected while on the trip.

This is Erin, another geology major. She is a junior. Holly, a senior physics major/geology minor cleaning her samples!

Beach cows… or, my senior thesis.

Choosing a senior thesis topic had been something I was trying to push to the back of my mind, but as the year began and I received an email saying that it was finally time to choose an advisor and a project topic, I couldn’t avoid it any longer. I brought my list of potential topics in for review, and my advisor really liked one of the ideas I had. Just like that, I had a topic and an advisor.

The topic I choose came out of my summer research I did after my sophomore year when I was funded through the College to work with a faculty member on a science research project. I went to Cedear Island off the coast of North Carolina and collected sediment core samples from a marsh in an attempt to study the shoreline change (you can read my abstract here

That summer on Cedar Island I had also helped collect data for a smaller side-project my advisor had been collecting for a number of years, but never compiled. We used a GPS to map the vegetation line along the coast of a particular beach that had cows and horses from a nearby farm grazing on it. The idea is that these animals eat the vegetation, which is helping to keep the dunes in place. These dunes are helping protect the beach from erosion. Essentially, the data would help us see if the grazing animals were exacerbating the problem of shoreline erosion.

I was especially interested in this project, so I proposed that I would pursue this as my senior thesis project, and my advisor was more than willing to pass on his data for me to look through and use for my project. Although my thesis is in the very nascent stages so far, the main questions I am trying to answer is whether these animals affect the coastal geomorphology. It’s a bit complicated because of course there is natural erosion occurring as well, as well as erosion caused by big storms like Irene and other anthropogenic factors, like a jetty that was constructed right next to my field site. To do this I will have to compile past mapping data and historical images of the site, along with a whole lot of reading and researching! It might also expand to include other barrier islands with grazing animals, like Assateague in Virginia. My thesis is not due until the end of the year, so I have lots of time to sort this out and come up with a conclusion!

So, to start off my project, Anna (a fellow geology major), my advisor, and I headed back down to Cedar Island to continue collecting data for our projects (Anna is working on another project which you can read about here We braved high temperatures, mosquitoes, mud, particularly sharp marsh grass, and even quicksand, but it was all worth it to get all of the data we needed. Plus, my advisor’s parents’ graciously hosted us, cooked for us, and let us test out their new swimming pool, so we had some relaxation time as well!

It’s only the start of a long project, but my recent field work has me really excited to start looking at the data and get going with my thesis!

Here’s some photos from the trip.

Looking at the creek in the marsh. The backpack Anna is wearing is actually a GPS satellite receiver.

Anna and Don collecting samples and GPS points in the marsh. It was really buggy out.

Anna helping me collect GPS data at my study site. You can see some of the vegetation on the beach in this photo.

Anna's study site is only accessible by boat.

This is my study site--the southeastern-side beach on the North Bay of Cedar Island, NC.

A beautiful sunset after a long day of collecting data.