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Undergraduate research makes a big contribution to understanding the origins of the Navajo Volcanic field

Who says geology can't be fun?

Who says geology can't be fun?

What if you wanted to figure out how an ancient volcano formed? Since there is no active eruption you can't just go watch, and since there's human-record of the event you can't find the answer in a book.

Where you have to look is inside the rocks themselves that were born from the volcano, with the help of highly sophisticated and specialized instruments.

And that's the fantastic journey that 12 Fort Lewis students got to take this year, under the guidance of Professor of Geosciences David Gonzales. With the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, students in Gonzales' "Igneous & Metamorphic Petrology" got to use state-of-the-art analytical instruments with instruction from researchers at the Arizona State University, New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, University of New Mexico and the United States Geological Survey in Denver.

"It's a unique research collaboration," Gonzales says of the project. "It's a way to get undergraduates to actively do scientific research rather than just being told how it is done. The students are using instrumentation that we don’t have to analyze the chemical signatures of rocks and use these data to better understand the origin of eruptions in the Navajo Volcanic Field."

"And these students are working with people who are world-class research scientists," he adds, "people who usually only work with graduate students."

Michael Zbrozek, a junior Geology major from Denver, found the experience powerful. "This has been a wonderful opportunity," says Zbrozek. "We’ve gotten the chance to hear from leaders in geology, learning about different avenues of research, different graduate programs and doctorate-level research. It’s cutting-edge stuff."

Gonzales and his undergraduate researchers spent the past two semesters studying the Navajo Volcanic field, an area of extinct volcanoes that were active some 30 million years ago, about the same time as the eruptions of the San Juan volcanic field. The research area lies along the northeast edge of Colorado Plateau, mostly in Arizona and New Mexico with a small part in southwestern Colorado.

"The Navajo Volcanic field is primarily a type of volcano called a diatreme," explains Gonzales, "which is a very different kind of volcano. It has less surface expression than other volcanoes because it’s a large subsurface eruption that is heavily gas charged."

These gas-rich, explosive volcanic eruptions take place several miles under the earth, forming in pipes and bulges in the earth’s crust. On the surface they tend to manifest in subtle, shallow craters. Most interest in studying diatremes is because in some parts of the world, such as Canada, South Africa, Arkansas and northern Colorado, diatremes can contain diamonds; this is not the case in the Navajo Volcanic Field.

One hole in the research on this region, Gozales says, is on the genesis these volcanoes. The only way to examine the forces that forged these features is to look at the rocks that are exposed at the surface of the earth. And the only way to examine those rocks is to employ analytical instruments to look at individual crystals, minerals, and glass inclusions, trying to understand the sources of the magmas and volatiles involved in the eruptions.

"That's an important question because these volcanic fields are unique around the world, and in this area we don't have answers to these questions. So this is research that's never been done on this field before,” says Gonzales.

The project, lengthily entitled "Engaging Undergraduate Students in Petrologic Research to Test Hypotheses on the Genesis and Evolution of Mantle Magmas of the Navajo Volcanic Field," was funded by a $138,000 grant awarded to Gonzales from the National Science Foundation. The research is being conducted in partnership with several institutions and organizations that house the state-of-the technology required for the study, and has the faculty to instruct the students in their use.

"This is real science,” says Gonzales. "If we can train undergraduate students to do this kind of research, then it's going to be a major contribution to the field of geology, and to the science of the United States. If they can do the research and learn the difference between book learning and applied scientific learning, then we've made a real contribution to the field."

And that's something that not many undergraduates get to experience, says sophomore Matthew Klema, a Geology major from Durango. "It’s a great opportunity to engage in what most sophomores miss out on. This is not a normal class. Rather than being presented information, we gathered information. We are learning how to analyze the earth’s history using many different diagnostic techniques. Not one thing gives us answers, but everything contributes to what we are learning. Now we are figuring out what it all means."

That, says Gonzales, is exactly what he has been hoping for in the Navajo Volcano Field project. "I want to make a difference with our students, and I want to see them make a difference in the field," says Gonzales. "We're asking them to take the next step, from undergraduate students to undergraduate scientists."

"And they'll get a great education on the way,” Gonzales adds. “If they go to graduate school, they'll be way ahead of the curve."

Learn more about the Fort Lewis College Geosciences department.

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