Students take on Panama research for geology course

Laura Pacheco ’16 and Victoria Cullinan ’16 take field samples in a stream at Bocas Del Toro, Panama, for “Biogeochemistry” over winter break. (Courtesy of Anouk Verheyden-Gilikin)

Every two years, Union’s Geology Department offers a course called “Biogeochemistry.”

The content sounds like a monster of three disciplines but, ironically, encompasses only a specialized field of geology summed up by one goal: finding where the carbon in the atmosphere ends up.

The carbon can go any number of directions; indeed if it goes up, it can also go down into the soil or dissolve into the ocean.

The implications of the latter pathway make up a good chunk of “Biogeochemistry,” outlined and taught by Associate Professor David Gillikin.

Gillikin’s research hangs on the walls of the F.W. Olin Center on sprawling posters, with data taken from nearly all of the Earth’s hemispheres.

A substantial component of the course hones in on the mechanics of calcification: how dissolution of marine shells consisting of calcium carbonate has regulated ocean acidification for nearly all of Earth’s geologic history.

The culmination of the trimester is a nine-day trip to Panama, where members of the course, including myself, plan to take water samples from different ecosystems around the Bocas Del Toro region: estuaries, mangrove forests, caves and some coral reefs.

The variables measured included conductivity, pH, dissolved oxygen and alkalinity representing the buffering potential for increased carbon dioxide content.

The course places a strong emphasis on the implications of climate change and what it means for our future.

Early in the term, the students divided into groups of three and picked one of the above systems to study.

Students then wrote a research proposal of what we wanted to find out based upon prediction models in past research.

Other objectives included generating graphs necessary for presentation and learning how to operate fragile sampling equipment.

We arrived at Bocas Del Toro on the inner strength of four hours of sleep divided over two days of traveling.

The research station, funded by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, is completely self-sufficient, with no plumbing system or power transmission lines.

A lone generator on site produces approximately five hours of electricity per day. Rain water sloshes through tin gutters into large tanks to be used for showering or filtered for drinking.

The station is run by a quiet ecologist named Pete who has lived on the island long enough that, if you were to point to any plant or creature, he could recite its biography as if reading directly off its Wikipedia page.

The first thing we did on arrival was some sleepy sampling in a nearby mangrove forest.

I found myself in ankle-deep water, juggling a bunch of water probes I had been waiting to use for the entire term, but caught in that momement not being able to remember what they were called or which end you were supposed to stick in the water.

My two lab partners and I gingerly handed off equipment to one another, taking turns pumping water out of the soil through an instrument that looked like a copper straw.

For the rest of the trip, we accompanied the other groups to their respective sample sites, shuffling through buggy caves under screeching bats and boating on river mouths against scorching sun.

We spent the evenings recovering in the station cafeteria over lentils and corn, tending to mosquitos nipping away at our crimson skin and reviewing data in between board games, darts and idle banter.

While we were there to work on our separate projects, the Bocas Del Toro endeavor felt like an expedition.

Using the tools we were given and the measurements we collected, we learned a lot about working in the field and dealing with small adversities, just as much as we learned to put the course material into practice. We shared our living space just as much as we shared a learning curve.



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