Thursday, November 29, 2012

who read this?

I haven't posted about academic matters in a while, primarily because some of the academic blogs I regularly follow have been quiet and I haven't seen anything to react to. But Prof-Like Substance's post today on too many thesis commitments reminded me of one of the issues I had with my own thesis.

My main advisor was always jetting off to some sunny conference/short course or another and was relatively hands-off, as I've mentioned before. My technical advisor was busy himself (to his eternal aggravation, often with commitments that my main advisor had foisted off on him) and read about 20 pages into my thesis and then stopped, as shown by the incredible volume of comments that ended abruptly, with nary a comment for the rest. The third member of the thesis committee received a relatively late copy and maybe skimmed part of it.

I do wish I had more input into the technical portion of my thesis while I was actually writing. Not to check calculations so much, but to look at the data and suggest interesting things to look at and analyze and discuss. Maybe everyone on my thesis committee was a slacker, but reading over my thesis and preparing for my defense couldn't have taken more than a couple of hours. Is having 5 or 10 grad students to shepherd through the thesis/defense really such an onerous duty?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

another work dream

I have a big project due ASAP and I need to present a conceptual site model for a site with complex geology. Instead of writing a report and drafting figures in CADD or GIS, I have to bake a geologically accurate cake. A really, really big chocolate cake (like, 8 inches high by 2 feet by 3 feet) with lots of fractures in 3 dimensions, which are represented by frosting, of course.

I wake up totally stressed out. And hungry.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

rock ID

Lockwood will ID rocks/minerals for you on twitter! I mention this as a public service because mineral IDs aren't really my thing. I know, I know. With my lack of interest in mineralogy and my inability to discuss the structural history of a site on demand, I am in danger of losing my "geological expert" badge.

I'm pretty good with the basics (quartz! various micas!) and some of the more distinctive minerals I may come across, such as pyrite. Given a hand sample with reasonably visible mineral grains, I can come up with a good answer. I will admit that I was recently confused by a rock with what looked exactly like dogtooth calcite (an example from here).

It was actually quartz.

That's why I'm not very good at mineral/rock IDs from afar. I need a screwdriver to poke at it and a hand lens to peer at it from different angles. And most important, I need to know the context - what are the conditions it grew under? What are the other minerals it's associated with? I need a big chunk of rock, and maybe a few different chunks to see variations.

My suggestion for identifying minerals and rocks would be to get a field guide with good photos first, and then ask follow-up questions of internet experts. Sometimes doing your own scratching and turning in the light is all you need.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

my geology

I was stumped by a casual geologic question a while back, and I'm sure it set me back in the estimation of the other geologist (a regulator) who was asking it. In fairness to me, it wasn't my geology.

I started out doing the basic geology stuff (I was going to say "scutwork", but that's not fair or even very accurate) everyone in environmental consulting will recognize - watching drill rigs, collecting samples of all different environmental media, from rock cores to groundwater to goop sediment, doing basic contour maps and cross-sections, and writing up observations to be distilled into reports.

I found my calling when I started to write reports - how did the contamination get where it is, and where is it going? And where is it, exactly, since I'm triangulating between a couple wells at different depths that were put in as an afterthought because we thought the contamination was somewhere else when we started. In order to answer those questions, I had to know a lot about groundwater flow paths (that can be a dissertation in irregularly fractured bedrock), affinity of the contaminant to the solid material, and the geochemistry that may encourage the local bugs to degrade it into something more (or less!) innocuous.

I went to grad school to learn more about that stuff, and after I graduated, I continued to design projects to get those answers to the degree needed by the budget, the regulatory requirements, and the other resources available. Some of the knowledge I've gained has been more chemistry or biology or engineering, but a lot of it has been pure geology: geomorphology, hydrogeology, mineralogy.

One thing I don't know well is the overall structural geologic history of the areas I've worked in. Sure, I have a general sense that this material got all smushed up when a chunk of another continent smeared into the North American plate, and this major fracture bisects that unit but not the one next to it and they both were raised up and eroded and now what you see on the ground is a mess. And I know the names of the local formations, primarily because they're in reports I've read or written.

So if you're out in the field for an inspection/don't want to be in the office because it's a nice day and you think we'll be bringing up some cool rocks, and you ask me what the age of the rocks at my site are, I don't have a clue. Suggesting, "are those part of the XYZ group?" will help in that I can hem and haw about XYZ group, which I may have remembered from another report a long time ago. Doesn't mean I'm a bad geologist, just that I'm focused on something else.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

healthy fieldwork?

There was a long discussion on ask a manager today about wellness initiatives through work. Part of the conversation revolved around the definition of "healthy".

I've had periods where I've been in the field essentially non-stop for months at a time, and periods where I've been essentially sedentary for equally long periods. I've alluded to this before, but I readily size up/down up to two pants/dress sizes based on what I'm doing - something that's really obvious on my small frame.

So the knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that I'm healthier if I'm working in the field. Lots of exercise. Hours and hours of exercise! Weight-bearing, even.

But what if I look a little closer?

When I'm in the field, I eat out for almost every meal (other than the ubiquitous granola bars for lunch). The ergonomics are terrible: there is no back-friendly way to lift a cooler and if I'm not standing on pavement (oh, my aching feet!) all day, I'm crouched over something or other and I can hardly stand up straight at the end of the day. I have a sensitive nailbed on one big toe, and if I get any moisture in my boots (precipitation, sweat, fall in a puddle), it will get nastily infected. I'll end up covered in random bruises and scratches and most likely, poison ivy. Besides all these minor irritations, I'm statistically more likely to be involved in an industrial accident, and much more likely to be in a vehicle accident.

So, yes, my BMI is much improved when I'm in the field. I'm not convinced that means it's healthier or cheaper for my insurance company or the institution I work for.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


When I take pictures of geological stuff, whether it's an interesting outcrop or vibrantly-colored gack in a soil sample, I always keep Grover's "near!" (pressed against the camera) ... "Far!" (running off into the distance) in mind. If you take pictures of an entire core or outcrop, you miss out on the details you need to show. If you zoom in close enough to see the detail you need, then you lose the context. So take both.

This seems simple, but I can't tell you how many times I've missed either the details or the larger context when reviewing photographs. For example, the time we were doing lots of drilling in especially sensitive areas (homeowners' front lawns) and the field crews were under orders to take before and after pictures of the areas to show that we had left everything as it was when we arrived. So what did I end up with? 85 photos of a 2' by 2' square of anonymous lawn. I've also had issues with photographs that were supposed to show very specific stratigraphy differences, except all I had were off-kilter photos of an entire 10-foot core.

Sometimes it's overkill, I agree. Perhaps I didn't need to take a series of 13 photographs for each core box a while back (4 photos per core length, 3 core lengths per box, 1 overall photo). But taking detailed notes and a bunch of photos is way better than driving up to where your cores are stored and digging through 37 80-pound core boxes to revisit an interesting fracture.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


About half of my fieldwork has involved rinky-dink little sites. The sort of thing where you work out of your pickup truck/van/box truck during the day, pack your samples in the hotel parking lot at night, and have a porta-potty arranged if you're lucky.

So when I'm working at a site that's a little more permanent - access to running water and real bathrooms, electricity - I really do appreciate the amenities. Also, it's nice to be able to leave your steel-toe boots in a warm, dry alcove for your return.

Monday, November 5, 2012

wait for me

I've mentioned before that my dad and I don't get along well. One of the traits that aggravates me the most is that he has the attention span of a gnat and the patience of a three-year old. Of course, one reason I find him so aggravating is because I have very little patience. Especially with him.

Anyway, one of the consequences of growing up with a terminally impatient parent is that being the cause of a slowdown gives me hives. I hate passing other cars when I have other, faster cars coming up behind me. I always have my money out and ready to go when I'm buying something.

So I had a hard time when I first started working with drillers. Because even when I got to the site super early and had everything ready to go, there were certain things I just couldn't control. For example, if I'm collecting continuous soil samples every 2 feet for a standard list of... everything (volatiles - to be collected immediately. everything else, a large assortment of jars depending on what the lab needs) and logging samples properly as discussed earlier, there's no way I can keep up with the driller for the first ten feet or so.

That's ok. Because when you're working together, there will be times when the drill crew will be waiting on the geologist and vice versa. The driller knows this. They may grumble, but it will all even out in the end. Worst case scenario, I shoo the drill crew away for a water/coffee/pee break so that I can get what I need in peace.

After years of starting new field projects, I'm more relaxed about making the drillers wait. I will admit, though, that I do make an effort to relax and not fret about holding up a whole two or five or ten minutes in a day.

Friday, November 2, 2012

observe, then interpret

I was poking around the geoblogosphere, and I came across this post on field trip etiquette. One of Jessica's pieces of advice is to make sure your observations and interpretations are separate.

When I was an undergrad, I didn't have the years of experience to really see an outcrop and know what was going on. I would copy down whatever the professor said and then sort of took it on faith that there was a correct interpretation. But when I started doing fieldwork as part of my job, there was no correct interpretation waiting. There were no grades. All I had were my observations.

I started out by taking meticulous field notes because I didn't know which observations were important. I still take the most thorough field notes of any geologist I know, because I've learned from long experience that what observations are important may only be determined months later when I'm writing the report. And honestly, reviewers and regulators may have different interpretations of the data. But we can't have a good argument over interpretations if we don't have the basic observations first. What is the texture like? The color? Does it smell funny? Is there a sort of oily sheen on the soil samples? Are there any super-fine layers that could signal a change in geochemistry?

When I was a grad student, I taught a lab for a foundation undergrad geology course. I had the hardest time getting the students to focus on what they could see, rather than what they thought I wanted to hear. I knew what the formation was right away, but that was because my eyes had been trained by years of doing my own observations. What I wanted to see from students was a list of observations. Once they had those, they could crack open the book and try and figure out what they were looking at.

Without data, without notes, without a trail of evidence, your interpretation is just technical-sounding BS.