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Seismic Opportunity
JMU Undergraduate Takes Volcano Research to Capitol Hill


Hannah Shepherd likes things that make a big impact.

So it was a natural fit when she teamed up with James Madison University geology professor Elizabeth Johnson to investigate the massive volcanic eruptions that formed the calderas, lava flows and ash deposits now part of Yellowstone National Park in the western United States.

"Volcanism is very interesting to me, especially with Yellowstone, because it's such a mysterious geological environment that not a whole lot of people know about. It's so exciting that I get to contribute to the unsolved mysteries of Yellowstone," Shepherd said. "I really wanted to get involved quickly, so I hopped on the research project. Little did I know that doing undergraduate research was actually required to graduate from the geology department here at JMU."

Little did she also know that her research would soon make its own impact—on members of the United States Congress.

Shepherd, a senior from Mount Jackson, Va., was chosen to represent the Commonwealth of Virginia in presenting her project at Posters on The Hill, an annual conference on Capitol Hill where students from all 50 states showcase the importance of undergraduate research directly to the nation's lawmakers.

Digging In

Shepherd and Johnson used the analytical facilities at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History to examine feldspar samples from Yellowstone to test the hypothesis that high magmatic water concentration could have led to the "supervolcano" that erupted there.

"This research is important because Yellowstone is a 'supervolcano,'" Johnson said. "It has produced enormous eruptions before that affected large parts of the United States, and it could erupt again."

Johnson researched small samples of feldspar, which forms as magma cools, from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens while teaching at UCLA. She found that tiny quantities of water in the form of hydroxyl are taken up into the feldspar from the magma, and that the more water there is in the magma, the more hydroxyl appears in the feldspar. Magma from Mount St. Helens contained about 6.5 percent water, while smaller eruptions contained only about 1-2 percent, she said.

"The water acts like the carbon dioxide gas in your soda—when you first get the soda out of the machine, it's closed and pressurized. The carbon dioxide molecules are completely dissolved in the soda, and there are no bubbles. But when you lower the pressure by opening the soda, the gas exsolves, or comes out of the liquid and forms bubbles," Johnson said. "If you do this with a hot soda, you get so many bubbles that your soda 'explodes' and makes a big mess. The same thing happens with volatiles like carbon dioxide and water in magma."

The initial research revealed that the Yellowstone magma samples contained only 1 to 2 percent water, but Shepherd said they have not yet looked at samples from some of the largest eruptions, and more work needs to be done to disprove the hypothesis.

Talking Mountains on The Hill

During the Posters on the Hill conference in April, Shepherd and Johnson had an audience with Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and an extended meeting with a member of Warner's staff to explain the significance of their research.

"It was a neat experience because I'd always been curious to see how life is on Capitol Hill," Shepherd said. "I learned that in research, you'll be focusing a lot on something that not a whole lot of people know about, so you get to be really creative with how you describe what you're doing to people."

Shepherd, who previously presented the poster at the Geological Society of America Southeast Conference, said she plans to do a six-week field study in Ireland after she graduates next year, and then hopes to attend graduate school.

She credits her professors and school with providing her the opportunities to forge her own path.

"Not to sound corny or anything, but it's kind of like you can have the biggest dreams you want. I just wanted to be here because I knew that I loved JMU and I loved geology and the atmosphere here," she said. "Then all of a sudden I find myself presenting my undergraduate research for the second time to people who really matter in our country, people who know how to make a change. So if I can present my research to them, I feel like it makes a little impact, and it's so neat that students can do that."

Published June 2009