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Poster winners credit an early start in field research

By Eric Gorton, JMU Media Relations

Joe Bell and Sean Porse
Joe Bell and Sean Porse

Lacking any classroom training in hydrology, JMU junior Sean Porse felt a little odd stepping right into the middle of an ongoing hydrology research project on the shores of the Great Lakes in northern Michigan last summer.

"The first day I was out in the field, Dr. (Steve) Baedke was drawing diagrams in the sand on the beach right at Lake Huron, teaching me stuff," Porse said. "I was pretty much a fish out of water for a couple days, but it's a really good way to learn when you're put into a situation like that."

Joe Bell, a senior whose exposure to field research started in similar fashion a year earlier, agrees there's plenty of benefits to gaining practical experience ahead of classroom lectures: "Just because you don't have the geology courses, don't get intimidated and think you can't do field research. Get out there, do the research and the course work can follow."

And so can the rewards.

In October, Bell and Porse won the Austin A. Sartin Best Student Poster Award at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Philadelphia. The poster outlines their research into how the chemical composition of groundwater can reveal clues about the directions it flows as well as how various levels of surface and groundwater interact with each other.

Bell said traditional aspects of groundwater flow don't apply in the study areas — Michigan's Negwegon State Park in Alpena and Lake Superior State Forest in St. Vitals Bay — because, unlike the hilly terrain above ground, the water table is basically flat.

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"So if you were to stick in traditional well measurements and head measurements, you couldn't get a good idea of which way water is flowing," Bell said. "And the project really tries to identify groundwater flow based on the chemical characteristics."

The research could provide answers for biologists and ecologists who find vegetation growing in areas they wouldn't expect to find it, as well as vegetation dying off in areas seemingly ideal for growth. The key, Bell said, is the groundwater's ability or failure to provide nourishment.

"As an ecologist, you would expect to walk through this study area and be able to pick out the plants and say, 'OK, this plant is here because of natural progression,' but they're coming across these areas where the plants don't belong. The plant is typical of one type of groundwater chemistry, and we have that chemistry because the way the highlands and the lowlands are set up, the deeper groundwater is flowing up."

Bell also says the research could guide decisions on whether to try to save wetlands in the study area. "Alternative modeling like this can be used to show that maybe this environment shouldn't be here to begin with; maybe the loss of this wetland is because that's the way it's supposed to be. The lake level has dropped to a point where it's no longer the main influence and we don't have this traditional regional flow, we have these microflows that are setting up and they're just not able to support wetlands anymore.

"So we shouldn't spend thousands or millions of dollars trying to save a wetland that naturally wants to become a forest."

That practical application and the cross-disciplinary nature of the research, which has benefits for biology and ecology as well as geology, was especially appealing to both undergraduates Porse and Bell.

"All the feedback that I got told me that this was really high-caliber research that I was doing," said Porse. "It's not as important that I received an award as it is that people consider the work that I did to be that worthwhile."

The research did not provide any insight into how their poster would fare at the national GSA meeting and both Bell and Porse were surprised at the results.

"I was completely taken aback by it," said Porse, who added that some people asked if he was working on a master's degree. And, he received a job offer.

Said Bell: "We were up against the big guns too. The schools out there across the country that have great geology programs — Michigan, from California, some of the big geology schools — most of them were there and we don't have anything more than an undergraduate program here. So it's a blessing that we get to work one-on-one with the professors."

Porse said he has been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities he has had in JMU's geology department. "The caliber of research here at JMU is really good. ... Taking classes on the stuff that I studied this summer makes it so much more interesting because I learned it out in the field and, now, this is where it all comes into play, how it all comes together. I can't praise the faculty enough for the job that they do teaching us and being there for us."

Published December 2006 by JMU Media Relations