Inside Mizzou: Tectonic Tigers

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Cross section of the earth beneath MizzouJanuary 14, 2020

Hands-on learning is the bedrock of a Mizzou education. Since 1911, the Department of Geological Sciences’ Branson Field Laboratory has regularly hosted students from Mizzou and other universities across the country. This lab remains the longest continuously running site of its kind in the United States. Whether it’s our geology researchers analyzing rocks in the field or visiting artists mentoring students on campus, Tigers continue to enhance society with the work they do inside the classroom and around the world.

Join me on this week’s Inside Mizzou podcast where I talk with Miriam Barquero-Molina, the director of the Geology Field Program and assistant teaching professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, and Kimberly Moore, a doctoral student in the Department of Geological Sciences. We discuss the geological distinctions of our campus and our state, as well as why studying the ancient foundations of our planet can help us better understand our collective future.

More about Inside Mizzou


Moderator: [00:00:11] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou — real stories, real discoveries and real impact of the Mizzou community. Today’s episode is called, “Tectonic Tigers.” Ever wondered what causes the geysers in Yellowstone National Park, or how to use a Brunton Compass? Do you even know what a Brunton Compass is? Because I don’t. Since 1911, the Branson Field Lab in Wyoming has been run by Mizzou’s Department of Geological Sciences to answer questions just like these. And to this day, that lab remains the longest continuously running geology field lab in the country. Hands-on learning is the bedrock of a Mizzou education. In the laboratory, studio or field, our students, faculty and staff dig in to answer the fundamental questions of our time and discover more solutions for the future of our planet. Joining Chancellor Cartwright to talk more about this are Professor Miriam Barquero-Molina, director of the Geology Field Program and assistant teaching professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, and Kimberly Moore, a doctoral student in the Department of Geological Sciences who has studied at the Branson Field Lab in Wyoming and has also conducted research in the Avawatz Mountains near Death Valley National Park. Thank you all for being here.

Miriam Barquero-Molina: [00:01:35] Thank you for having us.

Kimberly Moore: [00:01:36] Thank you.

Moderator: [00:01:37] So, Professor Barquero-Molina, you’ve led Mizzou students in expeditions to Spain, northern Chile and other sites around the world. But let’s start a bit closer to home. Can you talk about what makes our campus and our state geologically distinctive?

Miriam Barquero-Molina: [00:01:51] Well, Missouri, it sits in the middle of the country, right? The middle of the North American continent. And you can think of Missouri as allowing us to — actually Missouri allows us to see sort of like a window into the geologic history of the North American Craton or the North American continent, which I think is fascinating. So, you can think of the crust underneath Missouri as a two-layer cake: The bottom layer is what we know as the basement. These are igneous metamorphic rocks that are really, really old. In the case of Missouri, these bottom layers — 1.6 to 1.5 billion, with a “B,” years old — and we can actually see some of those rocks in southeastern Missouri, in the St. Francois Mountains. If you’ve ever been to Elephant Rock State Park, those are some really old granites. Those are igneous rocks right down there in southeastern Missouri. The top layer of this two-layer beautiful cake is actually much younger sedimentary rock, and these sedimentary rocks were deposited during the Paleozoic Era. They are much younger — 540 million to about 250 million years old. Now, erosion has kind of weathered down through these layers of sedimentary units, and in different parts of the state, we see rocks of different ages. Around here in Missouri, and also in the northern half and the western edge of the state, we see a lot of limestone. These are the rocks that surround us here in central Missouri. And most of these limestones are what we know as kind of Mississippian in ag — about 350 to 340 million years old or so. And you don’t have to go any further than the Columns in Francis Quadrangle and take a look at the Columns. If you look at the base of the Columns, like the part that sits right on top of the concrete blocks, you’ll notice that those limestones on the Columns have these little fossils that look like Cheerios, like Cheerios everywhere. Those are actually fossils from these sea creatures that lived in shallow tropical seas that covered most of North America and also Missouri, of course, there in the later part of the Paleozoic Era. And these are the rocks that surround us here in Missouri. And in fact, the rocks that a lot of our campus is built with, and some of the significant buildings in the state of Missouri, as well as the Columns, those rocks are from a formation we know as the Burlington Limestone Mississippian — so 340 million years old or something. So those are the rocks we see, you know. And one thing that Missouri is known for is caves. We have a heck of a lot of caves in this state. And why? Because limestone. Limestone reacts to acidic rainwater, and also water mixing with air at the water table and dissolves limestone. So whenever you have limestone as your bedrock, which Missouri does, you’re going to have a lot of caves and sinkholes and all kinds of stuff. We know that in geology as karst, and that limestone that, you know, that we have in this state is also the host for some mineral ores that have played a significant role in the economy of the state. For instance, lead and zinc. The state mineral is galena. The Missouri state mineral is galena. You can look it up on Google. And galena is actually lead sulfide, PbS. So, yeah, that’s one of the — it’s been an important driver of a portion of the economy of the state. So, that’s the significance of the geology that surrounds us. Some of us sometimes get a little sad because we think that we could do with a little bit more excitement in terms of our geology. And when you think that, just remember, our geology is way better than Kansas.

Everyone: [00:05:09] (Laughing)

Moderator: [00:05:12] Very fair. And so geologic time is immense. And I mean, you pretty much just explained that, you know, with your great answer. And so with all of that information, how do you humanize this process for your students and in your research?

Miriam Barquero-Molina: [00:05:24] Yes, the earth is a heck of a lot old. And I think for those of us who are in geology, we get used to dealing with geologic time. You know, a commonly used expression when things are not going fast enough, we commonly refer to that as “glacially slow.” Well, glaciers move whoopingly fast in terms of geologic time. Geology be slow! So, you know, there is many ways that you can kind of transmit this idea to the general public. You can compare geologic time to the length of a football field or to a book. Or you can shrink it down to 24 hours, to a 24-hour period. And if you do that and think of the entire history of the Earth, which is 4.56 billion — with a “B” — down to 24 hours, it’s a whole lot of hurry up and wait, actually. So you can think of, you know, the first forms of life, single cell lives show up at like what, 5 a.m. or something like that. And then you have to wait until like 5 p.m. for like multicellular life to occur. And then you have to wait until the evening news for anything else exciting. So like, you know, like the Cambrian radiation is like 9 pm, and like plants show up at 9:40 p.m. And then the dinosaurs, you know, everybody talks about the dinosaurs, they were around for a while. That’s like barely an hour. And they show up at like 10:40 p.m. and disappear 11:40 p.m., like a late night comedy show. And we humans, modern humans, show up at like literally the stroke of midnight. So, that’s sort of geologic time in essence, I suppose in a way that you can think about it if geologic time overwhelms you.

Moderator: [00:07:01] Okay. I never would have thought I could have understood geologic time in the stretch of 24 hours, but I definitely have a better understanding now. That was a great metaphor. And so, Kimberly, earlier we mentioned Mizzou’s Branson Field Lab in Wyoming. Since you spent time out there, can you tell us a little bit more about it?

Kimberly Moore: [00:07:19] Absolutely. So field camp, like, what is it? It’s a capstone course that we as geologists are generally required to take. Most schools or programs do require it for graduation. And even some graduate schools look heavily on your transcript for a field camp. So, it’s a hands-on learning course. And it’s not always offered by many programs. Like my undergraduate institution did not offer field camp, so I had to outsource field camp and I happily found Mizzou. And it was a wonderful experience. It was not only extremely rewarding, but it was also educational. One thing that we do, or a quote that we like to throw around as geologists is, “Geology is not learned by the seat of your pants. It’s learned by the boots on the ground.” So going out and seeing these things that we’ve learned in class is very, very important as a geologist. So, it’s important for us to apply these principles and techniques that we’ve learned in the classroom to these real-world situations that we see. So unlike many other field camps that focus on the basics of geologic fieldwork like mapping, Mizzou’s field camp also offers other things like advanced projects, which I believe are really, really important for budding geology students. So, these advanced projects allow students — so for instance, these advanced projects give students experience in geophysics or even hydrogeology, which these fields are important to geology. These are the fields that many of the students are going to go into once they’re done with their bachelor’s degree if they do not go forward into some sort of graduate degree. So, it’s important for us to learn these things and experience what these fields or subfields have to offer. So, our advanced projects at field camp give us a little bit of an introduction into what we would be doing if we go into these subfields. So, learning how water works, how water flows or how to see the earth below our feet using geophysical method I believe is important to see if this is what we really want to do when we’re done with field camp, and it prepares students for these employable fields, I believe. Personally, it allowed me to work with a lot of various people from all over the country. And so I got to meet many new people and experience, or at least understand, what they’ve gone through in their degree. And we were able to share our different methods and pieces of knowledge from many diverse backgrounds, which is amazing. And then also we’re off-the-grid at field camp. There’s no cell service, which is, it’s a big change, a big change of pace. So, being off the grid for six weeks, being closed up in this camp, well, I shouldn’t say “closed up in this camp” because we’re in the wilderness. It’s beautiful. You can explore. It’s wonderful. So, being in camp for these six weeks with new people from different backgrounds is amazing. We really get to know each other, and we really get to work hard with each other and come to a conclusion — come to, you know, an end result. And it’s just amazing to get to know these people that will eventually be our future colleagues, not only our friends. So I think that it was wonderful and it gave a whole new meaning to the word networking. It was wonderful.

Moderator: [00:10:54] Would you essentially say that those hands-on experiences or all the things you just mentioned, is that kind of how your education and scholarship was shaped? Or were there any other factors of the hands-on experience that really played a role in that?

Kimberly Moore: [00:11:09] Well, attending field camp out West made me really appreciate how much I respected the complicated geology that it has to offer. I wanted to know as much as I could possibly know about it, which I think has kind of shaped my path as of right now. So, I’ve really learned to love field geology. Going out there, putting my hands on the rocks, seeing these things that I can’t see in a textbook or from photos. I think that has been very important for me, particularly with my master’s work and now my Ph.D. work. So for both projects I am working out west, and I really, really love it. I’m a hands-on, visual learner, so being able to see these things or see these geologic structures — these rocks and how they form — has really been important to me to be able to complete my master’s degree here and now move on to my Ph.D. So the knowledge, the field techniques and the problem solving skills that I did acquire at field camp have really come with me through these, both degrees. It’s been essential for my continuing education and scholarship. And so I like to throw out a good example of that: I just completed field work this last weekend in central Nevada where I applied a lot of the techniques that I learned at the old camp to collect data and study the rocks out there. So these reasons are why field camp was a pivotal, pivotal course for me as a student. I feel like it has shaped a lot of what I’m doing now with field geology and working out West.

Moderator: [00:12:47] Okay. No, no that is an amazing experience. It sounds — I feel like more people probably would be intrigued by, even if they don’t seem to be intrigued by, geology. It just seems that, it seems like it’s something that just can be helpful information, really, in a way, in general, if you know how to apply it. And so Chancellor Cartwright, I want to open this conversation up a bit. Lately we have discussed the topics that range from outer space to architecture, and now to geology. I think that says something about the breadth of learning and scholarship that happens at Mizzou. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:13:18] That’s a great question. You know, when we look at our institution, we’re a comprehensive institution across multiple disciplines here as one of America’s leading research universities. The advantage here is that you have people from all of these different disciplines that can contribute to a study of some area, right? Geological sciences use tools from all across the institution, and that ability to cross disciplines is important and being able to learn from each other. I spent most of my career looking at, you know, femtosecond spectroscopy and understanding how things move on a femtosecond timescale on a nanometer range. And that’s quite different from geology. But listening today, you know, I’m quite excited about it because I can see the parallels in the sorts of problems that we have to solve. Different timescales, different dimensions, but very similar in terms of what we’re looking at. If you think about what that means for Mizzou, Kimberly talked about all of the opportunity to do the hands-on, to learn by doing. Having your boots on the ground being the way that you learn. And you think about that across Mizzou. That’s something that is in our DNA. The Missouri Method in journalism, having our students practice as a journalist, having others in different sciences have the opportunity to do labs, being able to go to other countries to learn about constitutional democracy. These are opportunities that advance our students’ abilities but also at the same time advance the knowledge for society. And I think that’s actually what this is about and gives us that opportunity to value all the contributions from so many different disciplines here at Mizzou.

Moderator: [00:15:11] And so no matter the discipline, why are hands-on learning opportunities so important for our students and their future careers?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:15:18] You know, if you think about when — Kimberly actually said this in her discussion. She talked about learning how to solve problems. And I think that’s what it is, and is that what happens is that we can teach a lot of things in the classroom, but a lot of the times those are sort of controlled environments. The problem that you’re presented with is something that may be more controlled. But in the real world problems evolve. Problems change. And you have to think about, “I’ve never seen this before.’ Right? “This is the first time I’m encountering such a challenge.” And how do you respond to that is built up off of all of the experiences you’ve had in the classroom. The more opportunity you get to be at least presented with problems that are ill-defined — that you don’t understand — the more comfortable you get with your ability to solve such problems. And that’s what hands-on learning teaches you. It teaches you how to work in an environment that might be dynamic, that has a problem that you haven’t seen before. And you have the confidence then that you can pull on all of your base of knowledge to solve that problem. I think that’s what we’re trying to teach. When we are having people learn by doing, it’s that ability to pull on all the things they’ve learned about and then synthesize a solution to a problem that they may never have seen before.

Moderator: [00:16:51] Awesome. Well, I know I’ve learned three things today. One, how to problem solve. Two, that geological time can be broken down into 24 hours. And three, that I might be interested in geology.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:17:04] There you go. You’re going to take a class now.

Moderator: [00:17:08] I have to!

Everyone: [00:17:08] (Laughing)

Moderator: [00:17:08] But thank you all for being with us today. And now there’s just one more thing to do before we leave. Where do geologists like to sit?

Miriam Barquero-Molina: [00:17:19] Oh, boy. Uhh, no idea.

Moderator: [00:17:25] In a ROCK-ing chair!

Everyone: [00:17:25] (Laughing)

Moderator: [00:17:34] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is composed by MU master’s student Niko D. Schroeder and performed by the Donald Sinta Quartet. You can find more information about Niko, the Quartet and their piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode. See you around the Columns!