Research Trip to Tanzania an ‘Outrageous Opportunity’

By Blake Silberberg ’13
Univ. Communications

Eli Witkin ’13, a geology major at the University of Rochester, recently returned from a research trip to Africa where he worked with a group led by Earth and Environmental Sciences Professor Cynthia Ebinger to install seismic monitoring devices in a variety of locations across rural Tanzania.

Witkin became interested in geology after taking an introductory course on a whim his freshman year. After enrolling in more advanced courses, he began to take part in research, working in Professor Ebinger’s lab this past summer. This is where Witkin was given the opportunity to accompany Professor Ebinger on her research trip to Africa.

The seismometers Ebinger and Witkin installed record data about the variations in time, amplitude, and wavelength of sound waves generated by local and global earthquakes and volcanic gas emissions, which is extraordinarily useful in probing Earth structures. The goal of this project was to use the data gathered by these devices to better understand the mechanisms of continental breakup and the effect of magma intrusions, help monitor potential hazards caused by volcanoes and earthquakes, and advise the Tanzanian government on the potential for geothermal energy.

The group would wake up before sunrise every day to pack the car and begin the trek on rural, unpaved roads to the remote locations where they wanted to place the sensors. “When we would get to a location we would locate either the headmaster of the school or the leader of the village,” Witkin says. “Then we would discuss with them (through our driver who would translate) what we were doing and if it would be ok to install a station.  They were almost always very helpful and willing.”

The group would begin tEli1he process of installing the sensor by digging a hole, pouring cement in the bottom, and placing a tile over it so that there was a hard, level surface to place the sensor. The group then assembled the solar panel support and the GPS, hooked up the equipment and tested the battery to ensure everything was connected. The device was programmed using an iPod Touch, as the sensors were controlled through an iOS application. Once it was confirmed the sensor was working properly, the group worked to fill in the hole and cover it with a tarp to deter rain, and place the rest of the equipment (battery, power box, extra cables, and Data Acquisition System) in a covered plastic tub on the surface.

“When the site was completed, we would negotiate a price to pay the residents of the school or village to guard the site by building a thorn fence around it to ensure that kids or animals would not bother it,” Witkin explained. “We would then deliver books and posters on earthquakes and volcanoes to help support science education. Then we would get in the car, travel to another site and repeat the entire process. We averaged about two sites per day. ”

This schedule turned out to be very demanding, with the team working 16-hour days for a week and a half straight. On top of the exhausting schedule, the team also had to deal with 100 degree heat, frequent dust storms, and swarms of flies. Despite this, Witkin describes the trip as overwhelmingly positive. “Driving from site to site was basically a safari,” Witkin says. “We would frequently see antelope, zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, baboons, ostriches and all sorts of other birds and animals everywhere.”

The backdrop to the area was a basin that rose to the East so gradually it seemed flat, but on the western side had a 1000 meter sheer cliff that was almost vertical and ran farther than the eye could see in either direction. For a geologist, Witkin says, the natural environments were absolutely amazing. “There were numerous volcanoes and the normal rocks lying Eli4around are better samples than the ones we have in the teaching labs.”

Traveling to remote areas of Tanzania, the team had the opportunity to meet the villagers who lived in these extremely rural areas. “I was the first white person a lot of the children had seen.  Some were very curious and would run towards me while others were straight up scared out of their minds and when I smiled at them, they would run in the other direction,” Witkin recalls.

Usually at a station the team would cut off the bottom of the equipment buckets so the water can drain out.  At one station, Witkin picked up the bottom of the bucket and taught the kids how to play Frisbee with it.  “It was a really fun and novel experience playing Frisbee with the children of these rural villages.”

“Being able to do undergraduate research is an outrageous opportunity.  Not only did I get to go to Africa for a month, but I got to be there doing work that I love,” Witkin says. “Beyond that, it is invaluable to have real experience working in the field.  It’s one thing to know how to use a sensor, but a completely different thing to be comfortable using them in the field and to know how to go through a complete installation.”

On this trip, Witkin also learned how to improvise when something goes wrong. “How do you adjust when you encounter a problem and are already behind schedule and can’t afford to come back? That experience and knowledge is something you just can’t get in the classroom or lab and it will really put me ahead.”

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Spotlight on Natural Sciences and Humanities Alumni: Sarah Greene

Name: Sarah Greene
Education (UR and additional): B.S.  in Geological Sciences and B.A.  in German, University of Rochester, 2005, PhD in Geological Sciences, University of Southern California, 2011
Current city/state of residence: Bristol, United Kingdom
Job Title: Postdoctoral Researcher
Employer: University of Bristol
Family: Married
Community activities: Bristol Bach Choir, various science outreach activities for children


When and how did you choose your major?

I was thoroughly undecided when I started at UR. My freshman year I took classes in each of the three divisions to figure out what I liked best. My sophomore year I decided to major in both geology and German – the former I wanted to pursue as a career path and the latter because I had always wanted to learn a foreign language and to study abroad.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I lived on the Music Interest Floor, sang in Chamber Singers and Madrigal Singers, and formed a renaissance quartet with friends (Matt Hall ’04, Nils Klinkenberg, ’05, Erin (Sigmund) Kurup ’05). I participated in study abroad (I spent one summer in Berlin taking German classes and spent my junior year abroad at the University of Cologne) to become fluent in German. Serendipitously, it turns out there is a wealth of classic literature in my field (geology/paleontology) in German.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

I spent a summer in South Florida doing research and a year in Germany on a Fulbright Fellowship in part to figure out whether I liked research and whether I wanted to pursue graduate school. Afterwards, I enrolled in the PhD program in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Southern California.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

Balancing work and personal life is still a work-in-progress for me. In academia there is constant pressure to publish and get funding. Job security is scarce and you may need to move (multiple times) before you find a tenure-track job (if you ever do). Having a spouse or a family complicates this even more – will they move with you or will you restrict your job search geographically? Many of my female colleagues struggle to figure out if and when they can have children without sacrificing their careers. For now, I have created some balance by doing my best to leave my work at work and setting aside time for the things I enjoy (singing, hiking, cooking, and gardening).

Where would you like to be in five years?

I am currently employed as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol in the UK. I hope this is a stepping stone to a faculty position at some point in the next few years so that I can continue doing research. I also love teaching and hope to find a job which involves teaching geology at the undergraduate and/or graduate level.

What advice do you have for current students?

No matter which major you pick, try to find time to study abroad! You won’t regret it.

Oceanography: A new addition to Earth and Environmental Sciences

By Alayna Callanan ’14
Univ. Communications

Many students at the University of Rochester may enroll in introductory chemistry courses with no clue how the material can relate to anything they care about. But, Associate Professor John Kessler hopes his new class, EES 212: A Climate Change Perspective to Chemical Oceanography, can demonstrate how the material relates to students and help them understand the course concepts.

Kessler hopes to show students that “chemistry can be done outside a sterile chemistry lab.” Oceanography, he explains, provides tangible, real-life applications of chemistry, geology, and biology. It is a topic fairly new to the University, but since nearly 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by ocean, study of the oceans is critical to understanding climate change.

Junior Erin Hayes is pursuing a degree in the geological sciences and has been looking for this missing link ever since she took an oceanography class in high school. “I’m very excited to take a course that combines both my interests in Chemistry and Geology,” Hayes says.

Research experience is another academic component that Hayes and many other students strive to get.  Kessler is planning an exciting field trip where students will be able to conduct research themselves. The research will focus on oceanic methane, a contributor to greenhouse gases and a personal favorite of Kessler’s, and will explore the dynamics and effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Students interested in the opportunity should contact him or take his class to find out the details of the project.

Kessler previously taught oceanography at Texas A&M University and has done extensive work as chief scientist regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He normally has a limited scope of how he can study oceanic methane, but with this unfortunate accident, researchers used the opportunity to “learn how the planet functions naturally,” says Kessler. Geologic record has shown that similar situations have occurred in the past. Since no one can deliberately release at least 200,000 tons of oil and gas, this phenomenon has not been able to be replicated. Although Kessler typically studies natural events, he performed work on this because the spill was natural but accelerated, essentially. Research from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is still being analyzed. Professor Kessler hopes to introduce students to oceanography, more specifically chemical oceanography, and will tie in his personal knowledge and research to the class.

Read More: At Least 200,000 Tons of Oil and Gas from Deepwater Horizon Spill Consumed by Gulf Bacteria

Alayna Callanan ’14 is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in geological sciences. She is the president of UR Rock Climbing Club and the Outing Club, is the secretary of the Undergraduate Student Geological Organization and is a member of Gamma Phi Beta.

In the Photos (courtesy of John Kessler): Professor John Kessler conducts research during his first expedition to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Anna Glen Brody

Name: Anna Glen Brody
Age: 27
Education (UR and additional): B.A. in Geological Sciences, University of Rochester, 2006; California State University, 2011.
Current city/state of residence: Santa Rosa, CA
Job Title: Staff Geophysicist
Employer: NORCAL Geophysical Consultants
Family: Martin and Beth Brody (parents)




When and how did you choose your major?

My decision to major in Geology was actually the result of a scheduling issue. I needed a final class to fill my schedule during the fall of my sophomore year, and my advisor spoke very highly of the “Introduction to Geology” course. I have always enjoyed the outdoors and thought it might be a good fit for me. The class was great and the materials really seemed to “click.” Subsequent courses became more and more interesting, and it really took off from there. I will forever be appreciative of that scheduling issue in 2007!

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

I decided to continue my studies in graduate school. One of my professors at the U of R was collaborating with a faculty member at California State University, Fresno, and implored me to check out the opportunities there. I visited the school several days after graduating from the U of R, and was excited by the work at CSU, Fresno. By August 2006, I was on a plane to California and starting a new chapter in my life. The knowledge and academic discipline gained from my degree in geology proved invaluable during my transition into a new department. I was able to assimilate into a new department quickly and begin a Master’s project easily.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

My Master’s thesis project involved the use of geophysical techniques to investigate a particular region of Yosemite Valley. This type of work is fairly specialized in terms of equipment and processing techniques, and I was incredibly fortunate to have been able to incorporate it into my work. As my final semester was finishing up, I attended a field expo that was held by the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists, which showcased several leading local companies in the industry. There I met several individuals from NORCAL Geophysical Consultants, a very notable company out of Santa Rosa. I was immediately impressed with their work, and handed someone (who I would later learn was the President of the company and a CSU, Fresno alumni) a resume on the spot. Several weeks later, I was offered the position as a Staff Geophysicist with NORCAL just four hours after I successfully defended my Master’s thesis.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

Since starting at NORCAL this past August, I have continued to learn the balance between work and my personal life. One thing that I really strive for is the ability to leave work at work, and I accomplish that with a strong work ethic that I developed at the U of R. There are times when my schedule is busy with field work (going out for 3-4 days at a time), and there are times when I’m handling office work. No matter the work load, when 5 pm comes around, unless there is a pressing deadline, my workday is done. That means my computer and work phone are turned off. There is a lot to do in Santa Rosa, so my weekends are spent doing any number of things in the local area. And I try to keep up with my friends from Rochester, too. I think it’s very important to keep a healthy balance of work and play!

What advice do you have for current students?

Try to take as many opportunities as you can in college, both academically and extracurricular wise! There are so many venues at the U of R for students to explore, and there is definitely something for everyone. I really enjoyed my experience with the various clubs (Students’ Association Appropriations Committee, Cinema Group, Campus Activities Board) and the friendships that grew out of them. And I took so many interesting classes that I probably would not have normally pursued (Psychology and Buddhism to name a few) – Clusters provide a great way to explore different academic areas and can open your eyes to so many new things! Enjoy all that Rochester has to offer!