April 1, 2011

Geologic Detective: Professor Dru Germanoski Uses Scientific Techniques to Help Students Interpret the Past

Professor Dru Germanoski

Dru Germanoski developed a passion for the outdoors as a child and spent hours hiking, canoeing, and fishing in the waterways of central Pennsylvania’s Bedford County, where his parents owned a cabin. Once, when he was 5, his parents formed a search party after he didn’t show up for dinner.  He finally returned at sundown, having lost track of time while exploring the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River.

“I got into the woods as much as I could,” says Germanoski, Ervin R. VanArtsdalen Professor and head of geology. “I’ve always loved lakes, rivers, and streams, but didn’t realize they were the realm of geology until I went to college.”

Originally an electrical engineering major at Penn State, Germanoski took a geology course as an elective and still recalls fateful chapter 10.  “The title was ‘Streams and Rivers,’ ” he says, pulling the dusty tome from a shelf in his office in Van Wickle Hall to check his recollection. “That was a huge revelation.”

But it’s not an unusual entry into the field. Most students don’t head off to college wanting to study rocks, minerals, and water tables. Rather, they discover it, often by taking geology as a science elective. Once they do, they’re hooked.

That’s what happened to Germanoski, who, after graduating with a degree in earth science from Penn State, received a master’s from Southern Illinois University before earning a Ph.D. in geology from Colorado State University.

His primary research deals with the historical dynamics of rivers. He’s studied the channel dynamics of the Toklat River in Alaska’s Denali National Park and collaborated with geologists in Bolivia to develop a model using lead isotopes to fingerprint the origins of heavy metal  contaminants in parts of the Rio Pilcomayo River. Ever since the Spanish arrived there in the 1500s, silver mining has been a huge industry.

“We wanted to see if there was a way to separate the metals in the river that are there as a result of mining effluent versus naturally occurring ones,” he says.

His most recent work revolves around the dynamics of mountain streams in Nevada’s Great Basin region. He’s been taking students there for the past 14 years to study the dynamics of streams that support wet meadows, a type of wetland that serves as crucial habitat for many species in an otherwise dryland environment.

During the summer, Germanoski and students lived in the desolate town of Austin, Nev., working with a team of scientists to better understand the dynamics of wet meadows in order to manage the landscape so meadows can be preserved.

Students say the experience gives them not only a deeper appreciation for geology, but a better understanding of their place in the world.

“Spending two weeks in this ghost town was a culture shock for me,” Melissa Larsen ’09 wrote in a first-person account. “The more time I spent in Austin, the more I began to appreciate the different shades of brown vegetation, small-town dynamics, and the town’s history.  I learned more than just how to study riparian systems. I also learned a lot about myself.”

Germanoski considers geologists to be detectives who interpret the past to predict the future of the earth by using scientific techniques that reveal the causes of earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions. Rocks, he says, are history books, and he’s led courses during January breaks to Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Bahamas, where students have had field experience while hiking volcanoes, snorkeling in coral reefs, and exploring caves.

The natural world is a great laboratory and presents an endless realm of discovery and knowledge. It also allows Germanoski to combine his love for research with teaching, and his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. Each year, the number of students graduating with majors in geology grows and they head off to careers as environmental consultants and field geologists.

“Teaching matters,” says Germanoski, who has won numerous awards for his efforts in the classroom, including Lafayette’s Marquis Distinguished Teaching Award.   “The value of Lafayette is we’re focused entirely on undergraduates. As geologists, we really enjoy the laboratory component. It’s fundamental to what we do.”

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