Grant will allow him to co-lead a multi-institutional, undergraduate research expedition to Alaska this summer
David Sunderlin, assistant professor of geology and environmental geosciences, has received a grant from the Keck Geology Consortium to co-lead a multi-institutional expedition to Alaska in July to study high latitude, ancient terrestrial ecosystems.
Geology major Nancy Parker ’09 (Mystic, Conn.) will be traveling and performing research with Sunderlin as part of Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program.
“One of the primary purposes of the trip is to provide undergraduate students at various institutions with the opportunity to cut their teeth on real and rigorous field research in the earth sciences,” explains Sunderlin. “All students in this research will be preparing their own research study for execution in the field/lab and then reporting in oral and written form in an undergraduate geoscience research symposium in mid spring 2009.”
Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Keck Geology Consortium is a multi-college collaboration, which has enriched undergraduate education through development of high-quality research experiences since1987.
Sunderlin will be traveling with his co-director Chris Williams, assistant professor of environmental science at Franklin & Marshall College, and six undergraduate students, each representing a different undergraduate institution.
The research party will center on the Matanuska Valley of south-central Alaska where Paleocene/Eocene age rocks preserving evidence of lush forest growth during a warm phase in Earth’s history (55 million years ago) make up the valley walls.
“The plant fossils preserved in the rocks are quite different than the modern plant life that occupies the valley now. We think Alaska was an overall more temperate place back then,” explains Sunderlin.
Together, the students will spend the month of July collecting leaf fossils of ferns, conifers, flowering plants, permineralized tree trunks (with growth rings), fossil amber chemistry, and other paleoenvironmental indicators for their various projects. Lab work on the specimens will continue at their home institutions throughout the fall and into the spring of 2009.
“Our research group will provide a detailed look into what we think was a ‘fluvial-dominated’ paleoecosystem with braided and/or meandering streams snaking across this part of ancient Alaska. We’ll be asking detailed local questions about how vegetation may have been distributed in this ecosystem and also larger questions about how the high latitude light regime may have influenced the forest structure at the time.”
Sunderlin is not only excited about the discoveries waiting to be unveiled by their research, but also that it is undergraduates who will be unveiling them.
“Though Chris and I have selected the field locality and developed the overall research plan,” he continues, “the students will take portions of the work as their ‘baby’ and will see their work through from idea, to execution, to publication. I am looking forward to the synergy among the students and in the projects since each will provide context for the others.”
In the summer of 2007, Sunderlin received a Discover Denali Research Fellowship to perform a related project. Geology major Eric Ricci ’08 (Staten Island, N.Y.) accompanied him on an expedition researching fossils of the Late Cretaceous period in Denali National Park in Alaska.