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Geosciences professor Gary Gianniny chosen as the 2011-12 Featured Scholar

“Research builds,” says Fort Lewis College Geosciences Professor Gary Gianniny. It’s an axiom that is illustrated by his research portfolio, which is as deep as it is impressive. His pursuit of knowledge has taken him around the world studying topics from evolution and sedimentary records found in limestone to the energy potential of microbial deposits and the effects of coal extraction on groundwater.

Dr. Gianniny began his undergraduate academic career in Virginia still searching for what he wanted to pursue. It wasn’t until he transferred to Colorado College that he really found his passion for geology, thanks to an especially dynamic professor that influenced him greatly.

He graduated from Colorado College with a bachelor’s degree in geology and took a few years to be, in his words, “a ski bum,” before resuming his studies. Master’s and doctorate degrees followed, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Geology and Geophysics.

During this time, he started a line of research that continues to interest him today: examining the evolution of the Pennsylvanian Paradox Basin. By studying the limestone, gypsum and other rock layers in the basin, Dr. Gianniny uses the stratigraphic record to determine the causes of ancient sea level change, including changes in climate. This research provides insights into things society needs to know. Insights like: what other kinds of disruptions occurred during these climate change periods that can be read from the sedimentary records found in these rock formations? To what extent can this understanding help us to predict the continuity of gas reservoirs and aquifers in the region?

“This information is interesting to society, but I just love to try to figure out how the system worked that controlled the dance of these ancient shorelines,” he explains.

Pursuing this research brought him to the Four Corners, a move that would eventually bring him to this area and to Fort Lewis College.

“I spent three summers and a fall studying the strata along the San Juan River while being based off a white water raft,” he recalls. “It was pretty great. In between research trips my wife and I discovered and fell in love with Durango.”

Now at Fort Lewis College, Dr. Gianniny continues his research, but always strives to bring his students into his work in an effort to teach. Proof can be found in his list of scholarly publications, where more than a dozen were co-authored by FLC students.

Some of those publications came from the many student research opportunities that have arisen from work on the spectacular glacially-sculpted cliffs north of Durango. Dr. Gianniny, an expert on ancient limestones, invited sandstone expert, Dr. Kim Miskell-Gerhardt to join him and his students in trying to decipher the complex geometries of strata. Seven students have worked with the research team, most of whom are now employed in geology or are in graduate school.

“We have found that the climate driven sea level changes interacted with tectonics to produce an intricate shingle-like pattern on this eastern margin of the basin. No one dreamed that these outcrops would provide such a world-class example of interacting sedimentary systems,” he says. “Because I have such dynamic students and colleagues, I think we have nailed the evolutionary dynamics of this portion of the basin.”

An additional avenue of Dr. Gianniny’s research is in energy production, for example, coal. Coal, while abundant in this area, comes with potential problems. Dr. Gianniny and his students have looked at how the extraction of coal bed methane affects the amount and quality of the groundwater. It’s a project of great interest to area land managers who want to know if residents’ water rights are being affected by energy production.

Working with colleagues in the San Juan Collaboratory (Mountain Studies Institute, University of Colorado, and the San Juan Public Lands Center), Dr. Gianniny and his students helped to set up experiments that took a snapshot of the chemical composition of area groundwater in an effort to track its movement, essentially fingerprinting the water to show where it came from and where it went.

“Our data did a lovely job delineating the source of waters in the hydrologic system of western La Plata and western Archuleta counties” he says.

Research students and his classes have also contributed to useful information on the impact of dam flows on floodplain aquifers on the Dolores River. Collaborating with his wife, Dr. Cynthia Dott of the FLC Biology Department, their work demonstrates the critical importance of long duration high river flows to the recharge of these aquifers and the health of native vegetation.

“Integrative science that bridges across scientific fields and provides useful information is by far the most exciting thing we can do in research,” he says. “One of our College-wide learning goals is the application of knowledge to inform action: that’s our game.”

Dr. Gianniny’s work has brought him and his students attention, accolades and funding from the scientific community. It’s a reflection on the opportunity to do high quality research at a school that places such a high priority on teaching.

“The idea that working at a place like Fort Lewis College, we could still compete with research one schools in terms of having interesting things to say and making contributions to science,” he says. “That is pretty exciting.”

Find out more about the Geosciences department here.


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