Summer Snapshot: Bryan Gee '16 on Geochemistry and the Cambrian Explosion
About Summer Research
To learn more about the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and to read more entries in our "Summer Snapshot" series, visit our SURP website.
This is one in a series looking in on the work and projects Pomona students are carrying out this summer.
The big picture of what we’re looking at is a geologic trigger for the Cambrian Explosion. The reason this is interesting, and why we’re looking for a geologic trigger, is that we think that geologic events suddenly exposed lots of basement rocks (lots of igneous rocks) that had not been weathered and were suddenly exposed to weathering areas, then turned into the soils that we’re studying. During weathering processes certain minerals and elements are retained by the soil and others are bleached out and make their way into the ocean through rivers and other runoff. The ones that we’re interested in are ones like iron and nitrogen and phosphorus, because those are three limiting nutrients for primary producers: things that photosynthesize, like algae. If you have a high increase of primary productivity, which is at the base of the food chain, you can then follow it all the way up to an increase in the amount of resources available to the entire ecosystem, which would allow for greater diversity of organisms to survive.
What is your mentor like?
My advisor’s name is Professor Robert Gaines, but everyone calls him Bob. Bob and I have the most similar academic interests. We work in an interdisciplinary field, paleontology, and there are a lot of different scientific aspects that get brought in: you have chemistry, biology, geology, and some other stuff in between. I was a TA for Bob’s Earth History class this past semester and I really enjoyed working with him.
What is the biggest problem you’re running into right now?
All the stuff that Bob works on is very fine-grain sediment. They’re basically clays and silts, which means that when you powder them, they stick to the thing that you’re powdering them with. You need to sand-blast it three or four times per sample to get it clean again so that you can use it for the next sample. And I have about 45 of those samples lined up right now. (Laughs.)
Why are you doing summer research, and why this topic?
I thought it’d be good to get hands-on experience working with the Geology Department’s equipment; I basically use almost every single piece of technology that we have in the department to do different analyses. I also thought it would be good to get research experience under my belt. I’ve never worked on soils before, so it was interesting to find that you can get so much information from them, and also that weathering of soils can have such a big impact on ecosystems. I focus on dinosaurs, but working with Bob on stuff that’s related to both geology and invertebrate paleontology has been really exciting so far. It’s very interesting to me to be able to see the different interdisciplinary approaches in the work; that’s something that I really value and am interested in exploring beyond college. Figuring out how different areas of science that I study are able to come together to help us understand more about life that no longer exists, life that is still interesting and important to understanding how life on Earth exists now.