Student finds poetry among the rocks of Wyoming
Last spring, when graduation and the inevitable job search were just a few months away, English major Laura Marris couldn’t have imagined that one of the questions on her first post-graduate interview would be: “Do you really want to carry rocks around for three weeks?” Or that her enthusiastic answer would lead her on an expedition through desert plains and snowy mountains in an effort to determine where the state of Wyoming was located 1.8 billion years ago.
But after hearing about the experience of Alex Kain, a recent Yale graduate who spent a month aboard an icebreaker on an oceanographic expedition to the Arctic Ocean, Marris decided that the search for a more conventional occupation could wait. She was hooked, and she wanted to embark on an adventure of her own.
Luckily, Marris was taking the course “Natural Disasters,” taught by Geology & Geophysics Chair David Bercovici, who helped orchestrate Kain’s trip to the Arctic the previous year. Bercovici connected Marris with Taylor Killian, a geology graduate student who was planning an upcoming expedition to Wyoming. He was happy to have a field assistant and a fellow graduate student to help collect rock samples, and Marris jumped at the chance.
“I had never been to Wyoming before, and I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “Taylor told me all I needed was an adventurous spirit, so I tried to keep my expectations open.”
Marris, who returned from the field Sept. 9, decided to keep track of her adventures along the way (and keep up her writing skills) with a blog that combined a layman’s explanation of the science behind the trip with stunning photographs and funny anecdotes — some of which involve bear spray, off-road driving and a Tyrannosaurus Rex head mounted on the wall of a local café called “Pistol Pete’s.”
More than a record of her thoughts and adventures, the blog served as a means for explaining the science from an outside perspective and was a valuable outreach tool, says David Evans, a geology professor who is Killian’s academic supervisor and who helped fund Marris’ trip through a research grant.
“Just the simple title of her blog — ‘Where Was Wyoming?’ — I couldn’t think of a more elegant way to describe the project to lay people,” Evans says.
For three weeks, Marris helped Killian sample rocks from sites around the state to take back to the lab, where he will study their paleomagnetic record to determine where the rocks were positioned nearly two billion years ago. It’s one piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle, which, if scientists can make the pieces fit, will construct a map of the ancient world.
“The goal is to put together the continents back in time,” Evans explains. “We know where they’ve been for the past 250 million years, but the Earth’s history goes back 20 times further than that, and we don’t really know where they were before then.”
If geologists can reconstruct the locations of the precursors to today’s continents over a significant period of the Earth’s history, it will give them clues about how the Earth’s internal convection process works — how the planet has cooled and evolved, and how this has influenced the evolution of life, throughout much of the planet’s existence. Wyoming, as one piece of the puzzle, is thought to have been located near the Great Lakes region in the distant past.
“I really love learning about the way the world works on a literal level,” Marris says. “It was really amazing to have somebody there who could explain that the layers of rock you’re looking at means there was an ocean once where there’s now an incredibly dry landscape. I sort of feel like I got to take a class, but a very hands-on one.”
According to Killian, Marris carried her weight — quite literally, by hauling rock samples in her backpack, but also by extracting the rock and helping to find ideal sites for sampling. “She latched onto the science really quickly,” he says. Her enthusiasm outweighed her lack of experience, or even a science background.
“We definitely worked really well together,” Marris says. “I think we were all very optimistic, no matter what. Even if it was snowing Aug. 31,” she adds with a laugh.
Along with waking up to a blanket of snow for the first time ever on Aug. 31, which happened to be Marris’ birthday, one of the highlights for Marris was the gorgeous scenery that followed her through the changing landscapes of the trip, which took the team through vastly different parts of the state. “It was easy to photograph,” she says, adding that the hiking and camping were a big part of the experience. Click on the link in the blue box, above, for a slideshow of Marris’ photos.
“I feel really lucky. And I feel really invigorated by it. I’m ready to go have more adventures.”
Marris won’t have to wait long for her next adventure, which is set to start later this month. She’ll be joining Maureen Long, a geology professor whom Marris met through the Natural Disasters course, on another field expedition. This time she’ll be traveling to Peru — another place she has yet to visit — where she will help deploy instruments to record seismic activity.
Despite what appears to be a budding career as professional field assistant, Marris is still an English major and poet at heart. She plans to pursue journalism and has been writing for the Branford Eagle community newspaper since July. Eventually, she may decide to attend graduate school and earn an M.F.A. in poetry, possibly even a Ph.D. But in the meantime, she says she’s happy to take some time to figure it all out, and to take advantage of other opportunities as they come up — even those that might seem, at first glance, an odd fit.
“It’s so easy when you’re at home, looking for a job, to find everything sort of narrowing down,” Marris says. “I think this trip opened my eyes to what’s possible.”
— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin