Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Unfortunately, I haven't yet had the opportunity to see what lava does to a pumpkin. (I'm sure someone has, although I haven't seen photographic records - probably for good reasons.)

In the meantime, here's a spooky picture from Hawaii, which is about as close as I'm gonna get.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More evidence for water on Mars

And guess how they know? Opal! (Here's another article, and here is a link to a PDF of the original article in Geology.) Score for mineralogy!

This interests me at the moment for a number of reasons, besides the fact that finding out anything new about Mars is just cool. First reason: I'm taking a remote sensing class right now, and we're getting ready to do projects that involve tasks like identifying minerals by their spectral properties - just what the
Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM) did to find the opal.

Second reason: I'm sure that for some people, the word "opal" conjures up images of shimmering, multihued gems strewn about the landscape. Unfortunately, what CRISM recorded on Mars won't be anywhere near as pretty. In fact, it will probably look something like this:

While this photo (taken just outside the caldera of Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii - and yes, I've shown it before) is a pretty good approximation of what the Martian surface looks like anyway, the important thing to note is the ground. Don Swanson is walking on the surface of an eruption deposit that's made up of ash, lithic fragments, and ballistic blocks. He should be sinking into something like that, which is usually pretty unconsolidated, but he's not - because the ground he's walking on is all crusted over. And that crust is made of...wait for it...opal! The explanation (which I gave here, back in March) is that acid rain forms from volcanic gases, dissolves SiO2 in the environment, and redeposits it again, which cements the ash and lithics into the hardpan surface you see here.

The articles discuss the possibility that low-temperature acidic water may have been at least partially responsible for forming the opal deposits - precisely what happens in Hawaii, although the source of the acid is probably not just from volcanoes. There are areas where there doesn't appear to have been any acid involved, however, and the jury's still out on what processes were operating to deposit opal there.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Don't let them see you sweat

One of the students in my intro lab was chatting with me in class recently and mentioned that she was planning on applying to grad school, and wanted to know if I had any advice for being a TA. Now, I'm still working the bugs out of the process myself, since I've only been doing this for a few months, but it did get me thinking about what I should tell her.

Our situations are a bit different - I'm in science, while she'll be looking for programs in performing arts, and will likely be put in charge of a full course rather than a lab section associated with a course. What isn't likely to be too different, though, is that she'll be entering with little or no preparation in how to teach a class, aside from maybe a few days in a "crash course" seminar (like I had in August).

I didn't actually find that seminar to be very helpful, mainly because it seemed geared toward students who would be teaching introductory courses in which they were mainly responsible for choosing the course layout - developing their own syllabus, readings, assignments, etc. I don't do that - we get pre-written labs that roughly parallel what the students are learning in lecture, and maybe do a little additional lecturing on the side. So attending a seminar where we learned "think-pair-share" and other active learning techniques was neat in theory, but not really applicable to a structured setting like a lab course. (We did have one short session on teaching labs, but I was so annoyed by the fact that the invited TA wouldn't shut up and stop talking over the professor who was running the thing that I didn't get much out of it.)

Anyway, the gist of it is that I've either been relying on advice from other TAs or learning on my feet. This is both good and bad; the good is, you find out really quickly what works and what doesn't, but the bad part is, my first class of the week usually gets shorted in terms of quality of teaching because they end up being the guinea pigs. My TA group does get together and go through the labs and experiments beforehand, but there's a big difference between when we do the lab and when the students have to do it; we often find that something that makes sense to us is totally incomprehensible to the class. This doesn't do much for my nerves. I apparently don't show it, but I get really nervous about standing in front of a bunch of people and being responsible for them learning something properly. I'm always worried that I won't teach something in a way that makes sense, or that I'll get something wrong and then be embarrassed about it in front of a bunch of people who aren't all that much younger than me.

Fortunately, I realized something early on: The students don't know when you make a mistake, they don't usually remember it unless it was something really stupid, and for the most part, they're not out to get you. Some of them really want to learn and some of them just want to pass and finish their science requirement. A few will want to go on in the field, and you want to try and do the best job you can for their sake, so they don't have to relearn it later - but you shouldn't let it totally consume your time or attention.

So here are a few more of the things I've learned so far:
  • Make sure you know what you're going to teach ahead of time. If you need a powerpoint, don't wait until five minutes before class to put it together; if you're talking about a reading, read it; if you're doing a lab, try it out so you know where your students are likely to screw up.
  • If you're in grad school and you have a TAship, someone thinks you're competent enough to be in front of a class. Try not to doubt your ability to teach.
  • Don't give them the answers, but don't not answer questions. Lead them; say "How would you solve this problem?" Make them go through their process and point out where they might be going wrong.
  • Group work sucks - there's no way to get around that. Group work in class works better than group work on projects, though - if you're not around to watch, someone will always end up doing all the work and someone else will slack off. Be cautious about assigning out-of-class group work.
  • Anecdotes and analogies keep people interested. (Students have much more fun learning about impact cratering when you let them throw pumpkins off the roof of the building, for example.)
  • Unless you're really doing a terrible job, your salary doesn't depend on their end-of-semester evaluations. Not everyone is going to like you all the time, but as long as you make sure that they understand what you're teaching (ask them!), you don't have to be the "cool" TA. (Although that helps...)
  • Don't stress over the ones that choose to fail - and by this I mean people who just don't make any effort, not the ones who do the work and ask for help and still don't do well (keep plugging for those). You're responsible for letting someone know that they're doing badly, but they need to come to you for help. Don't spend all your time chasing them around.
  • Don't take yourself too seriously! Expect courtesy and respect from your students, and give them the same, but don't forget that you're all just students - joke a little, sympathize when they have midterms, ask how their plays or sports competitions or concerts went.
So far, I'm finding that I enjoy teaching, at least for the short time I do it every week. I don't know that I'd want to make a career of it, or that I'd want to teach more involved and larger classes, but for now...hey, it's not so bad!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Miracle Mud

On Thursday, our department lecture series brought Dr. Lynda Williams of Arizona State University to talk about antibacterial clays. Now, mineralogy was never my strong point, but this talk brought a whole new perspective to it - that mineralogy can contribute to medical research!

For a little background: There's a kind of mycobacteria (yep, that's spelled right) that exists in African swamps that gets onto the pincers of a biting waterbug. When people are bitten, the bacteria gets under their skin and creates an infection, which eventually (WARNING - ICKY PART) causes their skin to rot and slough off. It's basically a flesh-eating bug, like necrotizing fasciitis, and in the past, the only real treatment has been to amputate the affected limb. It's called Buruli ulcer, and it's nasty, and the people who get it don't do well. If they survive the infection and don't have the limb amputated, they have to have extensive and messy skin grafts to repair what are essentially open wounds.

One woman, however - a French humanitarian treating people in the Ivory Coast,
Madame Line Brunet de Courssou - heard about special French green clays that were purported to have antibacterial properties. This is a claim that's been put forward by a lot of alternative medical people, and there are literally thousands of places on the internet and elsewhere that you can order healing muds. But Madame de Courssou remembered using the clay to heal cuts and burns when she was a child, and wanted to try it out on the people she was treating for Buruli ulcer. Incredibly, she discovered that the clay not only killed the infection, but helped skin grow back over the wounds. The treatment was both effective and cheap, which made it extremely valuable for people who had no way to afford expensive and difficult-to-obtain drugs, and naturally she wanted to bring it to people's attention. When she tried to get support for her treatments from the World Health Organization, though, she met with a great deal of criticism to the effect that her claims were not scientifically supported. So...

Dr. Lynda Williams comes in. She's a clay mineral geochemist, and was asked to help figure out just what about the green clays stops infections. I can't possibly do her talk justice here, but I can remember a few of the highlights: It seems that the antibacterial properties of the clays - which are mostly smectites - are linked not only to a specific size fraction of the clay minerals (~200 nanometers), but to trace minerals in the clays. She went through a complicated process of testing clays with interstitial water removed, and leached clay, and pH-adjusted clay; it turns out that in the French clays, the presence of iron had something to do with the antibacterial properties. (The clay leachates, which must have contained some iron, also killed bacteria, although they weren't effective after a certain time span. I think that Dr. Williams suggested that this might have something to do with the oxidation process the iron is undergoing - there was an Eh-pH diagram involved at one point.)

Not only do the French clays seem to kill Buruli ulcer, they also go after things like E. Coli and staph - with amazing results. One of the clay samples killed 100% of the E. Coli, and most of a particularly resistant staph strain. And these aren't the only clays that do this - some clay samples Dr. Williams received from undisclosed locations in the US do the same thing. (They have somewhat different chemical properties, however, which makes the puzzle even harder to piece together.) At any rate, she and her colleagues are still examining the clays, doing various kinds of geochemical analysis and SEM/TEM imaging to try and figure out the specific factor - or combination thereof - that makes them valuable as antibacterial agents.

And the best part? The clays are derived from altered volcanic rocks. That's right - volcanoes are saving lives! (Well, really indirectly and a long time after the fact.)*

I don't know about you all, but if I ever get a staph infection from a hospital visit, I'm definitely asking for a mud bath.

Read more:

*Believe me, I can find volcanology anywhere.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Let it snow....?

It's not even Halloween yet! The snowflakes were really pretty this morning, and it hasn't stuck to anything, but I'm sort of torn between that giddy-excited-wow-it's-snowing feeling and being disgruntled because it's cold and wet and October.

Then again, I moved here voluntarily. Happy first day of snow in Buffalo, folks.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

In the Humorous Vein #12

Wow, I'm really overdue for one of these. Since I've been talking more about life than geology nowadays:

This one's actually a photo I took at Niagara Falls last weekend. That bird was, no lie, napping. I guess if you've got wings, huge waterfalls and precariously positioned rocks don't bother you all that much.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chocolate time again...

So I gave a talk in an informal seminar today - and now I feel terrible about it.

It was on some ongoing research that I've been doing with my undergrad advisor. We've been working on some volcanic rocks out in the High Plateaus of Utah, and arguing one particular scenario for their origins. This is the first time either of us has presented this work, and we thought that are arguments made sense, given the geologic setting and the characteristics of the rocks. The presentation was just a short one, twenty minutes with questions afterward, so it shouldn't have been too big a deal. Unfortunately, once I got to our arguments, I found out that many of them weren't so conclusive as we'd thought, and they got shot down.

How the hell did I get so far without someone noticing this? It could be because my advisor isn't an expert in volcanology, and neither am I, and most of the volcanology I knew that pertained to our project, I taught myself. Apparently I didn't learn it well enough.

I suppose I should be glad that I can weed out the shaky arguments in the work, but all I feel right now is incompetent. This is my first time presenting this kind of research in front of a group of experts in the field, and to have it dissected is tremendously disheartening. I wanted to present this particular research because I thought it would be interesting, and because I thought that my senior research didn't really contain enough volcanology for a volcanology seminar. I realize that it still needs a lot of work, but I'm a first year MS student, for crying out loud. I know I'm not an expert and I know my work can always be improved, and I didn't expect great praise for the presentation, but it felt like everyone was expecting me to be perfect, or to have all the experience that the previous student presenters had (and all of them had their MS already).

People are saying I did fine, but it sure doesn't feel that way. And I know I'm constantly second-guessing myself and my abilities, and I shouldn't do that so much, but it's really hard to be confident in yourself when almost everyone in the room has more experience than you do. Okay, it wasn't a big deal and it wasn't for a grade or a thesis or anything - I still hate feeling like an idiot.

This is also the last time that I do a presentation at this particular time of the month, seeing as my horomones make me a weepy nervous wreck in normal situations. Combining that with a presentation, which also makes me a nervous wreck, sucked. I'm going to go home and eat some chocolate.

This "life experience" thing needs to not happen when I'm already stressed out by life.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Happy Earth Science Week!

I'm a day late, but only because I was visiting Niagara Falls yesterday with my dad - and if that doesn't fit with this year's theme ("No Child Left Inside"), I don't know what does. See the Earth science? See it?

Earth Science Week is a yearly outreach campaign run by the American Geological Institute (the people who publish Geotimes-now-Earth-Magazine, run GeoRef, and represent more than 44 other geoscience organizations in various capacities. ESW has been going for more than a decade, and it's a great opportunity for anyone to get involved in the Earth sciences. This year's theme, "No Child Left Inside" reflects the efforts of a coalition formed to help alleviate "nature deficit disorder" (another way of saying "our kids don't know squat about the outdoors and they spend all their time parked in front of electronic gizmos, which is not making them healthy"). There are nationwide events going on, many of them held by state geological surveys and science museums (some of which are shown on a Google map on the ESW website). Not to mention the contests, which are open for entries until this Friday - there are TWO photo contests this year, by the way, and the prizes include a little cash and a copy of AGI's Faces of Earth DVD.

You can also order a toolkit, which is packed with awesome posters and DVDs and CDs (even a 3D comic book "science fact/fiction" guide to Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, which came out this summer); download a calendar; see which states have issued proclamations about ESW; look up Earth science career resources, scholarships and internships; find information on planning your own event; and get your event featured in the ESW photo gallery. (Oh yeah, and a Facebook Group and Newsletter. Everyone should sign up for the newsletter - you'll find out about the contests way ahead of time, as well as other useful geonews.)

Advocating Earth science is really important right now, especially considering that it's an election year (and not just on the national level). There are a number of states where Earth sciences are being cut from the curriculum entirely, because someone in charge of the pursestrings has got it into their head that the geosciences aren't "real" science, and therefore not important. It's totally appalling, and one reason that I keep blogging - I don't want to waste any opportunity to tell people that Earth science is really, REALLY important. AGI actually has an advocacy guide up on their "Pulse of Earth Science" webpage, along with pages that list the current Earth science curriculum standards in each state.

A few other bloggers have also put in mentions about ESW, and if we all do, we'll be making a big difference. If nothing else, you can have fun greeting everyone this week with a cheerful "Happy Earth Science Week!" - and maybe some of them will join in!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Geology analogies (hey, that would be a cool name for a rock band)

Get it? Rock band? Ha. I'm just full of punniness today.

Bad jokes aside, the real reason for this post is in response to Callan's question, "What are some of your favorite analogies for explaining geological concepts to other people?" As a TA for an intro geo lab, I'm finding that I use analogies a lot, because most people don't have much of a background in the geosciences. (Despite it being on some sort of standardized test they do here in NY in high school, which I find a little disappointing. More emphasis on geology!)

Most of them are pretty simple things. When I was talking about why it's important to be systematic and detailed in writing rock descriptions, I compared it to describing how to find a car in a mall parking lot. Saying, "It's the blue Camry" is pretty useless, since scads of people have blue Camrys. But saying, "It's the navy blue Camry with leopard-print seat covers and hot pink fuzzy dice and the My kid can beat up your honor student bumper sticker on the back" is much more useful (not to mention an indicator that the owner of the car has a serious lack of taste). Likewise, saying that a rock is "pink and white and sparkly" doesn't tell me much, but saying that the rock has "fifty percent 1-2 cm size pink crystals, thirty percent .5-1 cm size white crystals, and the rest is equal amounts .5 cm size clear and black crystals, and they're all interlocking", tells me a lot (and leads me to think that the rock is igneous, and most likely a granite). It's also a way to impress on people that they don't need to know what they're looking at to describe it accurately; I might not know anything about how a car is put together or how it runs, but I can tell you what it looks like.

My mother actually helped me come up with a food-related one. Every so often she likes to try out a bunch of new cookie recipes, and she found one for striped icebox cookies. If you make them with two colors/flavors, they look like this:

I think I was discussing something geology-related while she was slicing them (basically, you make the dough, stack strips of the alternating colors, and then slice the cookies off the resulting "logs"). A few cookies toward the end were messy, and she stopped to look at them for a moment. "What if I do this?" she asked, adding a few extra slices and smashing the pieces back together. Which resulted in something that looked like this:

Fault cookies! (I love my mom. She made plate tectonics tasty.) I don't think I'll have a chance to use this one in lab, but it's good to keep in mind for later teaching opportunities.

Then there are all the volcano related ones. Lava domes are squeezed out of a conduit like toothpaste; volatiles exsolving from a melt are like bubbles in a bottle of champagne; and the old formula of Silly Putty is apparently a great way to demonstrate brittle/ductile transitions if you smack it with a hammer. (It's also a good way to injure people, so make sure to have goggles on hand.) I can't remember anything that I've used to describe things to people, but I'm sure I'll get to that when I start trying to tell my family what I'm doing for my thesis.

(I also really love the analogy that I saw at a Geological Society of Washington meeting last year - Callan wrote about it here - where the similarity of volcanoes and coffeemakers was discussed in terms of eruption dynamics. Can't take credit for it, but I still want to try that out - perhaps during a late night lab session would be best.)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Tricky, tricky

Still haven't got my laptop back (!), but I decided that I don't need to spend all of my Sunday-in-the-lab writing fellowship applications. Anyway, last weekend was the big field trip for the intro geo class that I TA for. We spent some time looking at the geology and history of Niagara Falls (which are apparently not very exciting if it's a Sunday morning and you've been indulging the night before), with some stops on the Niagara Escarpment and the shores of glacial Lake Iroquois. (And yes, oh whiny students, the professor is pronouncing it Lake "Iro - kwas". That's the way the French say it. Not only do we live near Canada, your professor is also European, and pronounces a French word the French way. GET OVER IT.)

Photos will have to wait until I have a laptop again, but one of my favorite field locations that weekend was on the shore of Lake Iroquois, where we could see strand lines of the ancient lake, as well as rounded boulders pushed up on the lakeshore by storms 13,000 years ago. (Some of the local houses even used the boulders and cobbles to build their foundations, or line driveways or paths.) Here's what the shoreline looks like at the Heber Down Conservation Area in Ontario, since I can't show you any of my own photos:

(From Wikipedia)

It's not terribly dramatic visually, but it certainly is if you're thinking about the history of the area. Most times we see evidence of ancient lacustrine environments, it's as lithified sediments, or cross-stratification, but here you can actually stand on the shore of a lake that's hasn't been there for thousands of years. Muy cool.

Unfortunately, most of the students on the trips don't even know that they saw this field location. Why not? Because it wasn't a place where we stopped the bus and made them get off and look at something. Oh, it was on their handouts for the day - Stop 5, en route to Lockport. We didn't get out and look at a pile of boulders or the slope of the shoreline; instead, we took a road that followed the shoreline for about ten miles, with the professor and I loudly discussing the boulders and the fact that we were driving on a ridge.

Ooh, tricky. Actually, it's something that I saw my undergraduate profs do every once in a while to see if we were paying attention. My advisor's favorite car game was "guess the azimuth"; and boy, after the first few times that I didn't know where we were on a map, or what mile marker we'd just passed, or how much elevation change had just happened, I began looking like an owl, my head was swiveling so much. Fear of embarrassment builds wonderful observation skills.

Last weekend's students, however, are not going to do so well on their field trip reports, because very few of them bothered to ask why we hadn't stopped at Stop 5, much less noticed that we were on an ancient shoreline. I'm anticipating a lot of complaining about us not spoon-feeding them everything they needed to know. (Not from everyone; there were some genuinely observant and interested people on the trips, and I think they'll do all right on the reports.)

What I find astonishing is that some of these students will be complaining that they were expected to pay attention. They didn't even have to stare out the windows of the bus every second we were traveling, or ask insightful questions in between stops - they just had to read their field trip guides, which made it fairly obvious that this was a "trick" stop. For the love of little green apples, people, you barely needed to glance out the window to see that we were on a ridge and then connect it to the "You might notice that we're traveling on a ridge..." question on your handouts. Fine, none of them had ever been on this sort of a field trip before; you don't have to be a trained geologist to use your eyes, though. Is this normal for students nowadays? I mean, I was their age not too long ago, and even just out of high school I can't imagine being so offended at being asked to think just a tiny bit.

(This whole affair sort of reminds me of the "Galileo Was Right" episode of From the Earth to the Moon, where NASA gets Lee Silver to take the Apollo 15 astronauts out in the field and teach them how to be geologists. They start off much like my students - "wow, that's a rock, great, it's sparkly" - but they quickly learn the value of being good observers. It just goes to prove that even if you're not professionaly trained in geology, or even really excited about it, you can still be good at it - after all, the Apollo 15 folks managed to find a piece of anorthosite, which provided one piece of proof toward the idea that the Moon was created from a chunk of the Earth.)