Field work: Week 2

This past week Jen and I headed back out to the Walla Walla Basin, but primarily for another project: doing the quarterly water level check and data collection download at observation wells in the Umatilla and Walla Walla watersheds. In between monitoring wells we collected the five remaining samples budgeted for the geochemistry project.

After visiting 60 or so wells, each with their standard blue wood-and-aluminum housing, they started to blur together. A few things stood out…

Cozy mouse nests and resident spidersimg_20180709_135009456

Granite boulders 200 miles from where they ought to be


and the earth-shaking exploding munitions that I was discouraged from photographing.

Those munitions were on the Umatilla Army Chemical Depot, where OWRD has a handful of  monitoring wells. Atlas Obscura has an intro and some interesting photos… The site was created during WWII to store weapons and supplies, and since then has been the location for disarmament from weapons stockpiled for use in the Pacific theater of the second World War as well as the Cold War. Our guide said that they had indeed gotten rid of all the chemical weapons stored onsite, and the current mission on the base is making sure that the old explosive weapon destruction pits are done exploding. That explosion while we were sampling was proof that the second look was necessary. The end goal for the site is to render it harmless enough for limited non-military use such as stock grazing.

Not much explanation is needed for the well housing tenants – the structures form hospitable shelters in the middle of wide-open grain fields. A perfect bed-and-breakfast for four-legged or eight-legged creatures. Luckily we didn’t see any of the region’s black widow spiders – just harmless, fuzzy Phidippus audax. For the sake of my arachnophobe friends I won’t post a portrait, but google them if you’re curious. They’re actually kind of cute.

That granite boulder, on the other hand, is a long way from home. Like, 100 to 200 miles. And it’s not a small boulder – it’s about the size of an oven.  Below is a map showing the “closest” granite outcrops in purple, and the location of this lonesome rock with a pink star. What on earth is it doing by a well in Morrow County, Oregon?

pnw granite and erratic

Like so many geological oddities in the Columbia River basin, it hitched a ride on the epic Glacial Lake Missoula floods (shown in blue below)! It likely came from somewhere around Spokane.

pnw granite erratic with floods

Glacial flood extent created by ESRI user jcleveland0, accessed via ESRI Online. Granite outcrops selected from the USGS Preliminary Integrated Geologic Map Databases of the United States shapefiles for OR, WA, MT, ID.

The Missoula Floods were an amazing manifestation of the latest Ice Age between 13,000 and 15,000 radiocarbon years ago. An ice sheet repeatedly dammed a predecessor of the Salmon river at its headwaters in Montana, creating a lake over 200 miles long. Then as water likes to do it eventually blasted through. Again. And again. In each flood event water racing at over 10 million cubic meters per second scoured the landscape in northern Idaho, Eastern Washington, and northern Oregon. These floods meant business, creating ripple marks bigger than houses, amphitheater-sized waterfalls, and topsoil stripped from Spokane to be deposited in Salem. That flow picked up boulders the size of buses only to set them down them hundreds of miles away, so the moderately sized one we saw on our rounds would have been a piece of cake.

The Washington Geologic Survey created a beautiful, user-friendly introductory website for the floods here. I really recommend it! It not only shows the scientific knowledge surrounding the floods, but the process of science that connected all the disparate observations into one phenomenal story. At least, phenomenal if you’re as nerdy as I am.

Our own research for the week was unfortunately nowhere as riveting as this rock’s journey. In the coming weeks I’ll wait with bated breath for the laboratory results, learn how to process four months of water level transducer data for a few dozen wells, and start my literature review. However any blockbuster geologic story like the Missoula floods was assembled out of thousands of seemingly trivial observations, so I’m happy to work away in my own little corner of science.


It’s not a bad-looking corner at all, just a bit hot…


Grad School Gets Real: Thesis Field Work Part 1

You never know where a conversation will take you. This one started with a conversation about the best puffy jackets at a conference, and ended with me perched on a tailgate wrestling with pipe fittings in an apple orchard.

Placemark 26

So even I, an avowed introvert, have to give small talk some credit. This summer I’m working with the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) evaluating the chemistry of groundwater in the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Basin! It’s a win-win scenario: they get a low-cost field technician, and I get to use the data we’re collecting to support my thesis looking at the spatial distribution of the water chemistry. I’m really excited to learn more about how the state manages these resources, and am grateful for access through them to the ability to sample from both public and private wells during their routine visits.

To learn more about what this research entails, check out the link below, and then come back to this page to read more about the field work that will make it possible.

Click here to go to the “story map” website I created to introduce my research

In short: agriculture in the Walla Walla Sub-Basin of Oregon (WWSB) depends heavily on groundwater from the deep layers of basalt. Those groundwater levels are declining at alarming rates, and the OWRD is trying to figure out how the aquifers work and what would be the fairest way limit use to more sustainable levels. My research focuses on a spatial approach to this problem: how does groundwater interact with the faults in the basalt, based on chemical, geologic, and hydrometric data? Should the faults be taken into account when allocating water rights?

This project is spearheaded by Jen Woody, a hydrogeologist at the OWRD, and she and I are also collaborating with the US Geological Survey to build on their studies in the region and laboratory capabilities. In return for the ability to put our results in their databases, the USGS is giving the OWRD team technical support, the use of their sample bottles, prep lab access, and assorted sampling gear. With training complete and the gear piled into the back of a pickup truck, Jen and I spent the past week based out of Milton-Freewater. It’s also known as “Muddy Frog-Water” (don’t ask me why…) and grew along with its wheat fields and apple orchards on the banks of the Walla Walla River.



I love this statue welcoming travelers into central Milton-Freewater. It’s the winner of the yearly “chainsaw frog sculpting” contest!

A day of sampling started a 7:30, when Jen went into the Safeway to get a couple bags of ice for the coolers and I set up shop on the tailgate calibrating the pH, conductivity, and temperature meter in brightly colored solutions. We then hit the road and headed out to the first well of the day.

We had picked out wells to sample ahead of time based on geology, GPS well locations, and well log characteristics, but those plans had to be flexible. Things that look so simple in ArcGIS are always more complicated in reality. Access to wells depended on who Jen had been able to get in touch with, whether the farmers were pumping that day, and whether there were sample ports on the well. Wells in the basalt aquifer here are deep – most are between 600 and 1000 feet – and the huge turbine pumps that access that water can cost up to $10,000 per month to run. They’re not something that we could turn on casually to get samples!

Placemark 44 (1)

Jen taking notes at one of two wells that water almost 2,000 acres of grape vines.

After we beat back the tumbleweeds, found an outlet on the well, and ‘MacGyver’ed some combination of hardware to linked that outlet with our sampling pressure fitting, it was time for science. At each well we took measurements for pH, conductivity, and temperature, and filled bottles with water to analyze for alkalinity, ions, oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, tritium, and carbon 14. Those bottles then got safely stowed in coolers until we drove them to the USGS lab on Friday. If you skipped the story map link, the images below outline what we’re sampling and why.

parameters 2

parameters 1

Our record was five wells and a surface water sample in one day. We had a break before a 5pm appointment at a well that day, so we just had to drive out of the blazing hot valley and up the canyon to a cool and shady park to take another isotope sample from the river… life is tough.

South Fork Walla Walla river

Finding the secondary well outlet sounds easy in theory… and then we ran into these mazes of pipes.

In addition to collecting samples it was also fun collecting stories from the farmers we met, whether it was gossip about the new vineyard in town or a tour of a retired farmer’s studio for restoring antique saddles.

It rained on Thursday, which brought the temperature down nicely but meant that pumps weren’t running. No irrigation meant no sampling, so Jen and I took a geology break up in the hills above Walla Walla to admire outcrops of the basalt that also form the aquifers deep below the valley.


The goal of our sampling is to evaluate how the faults in the region affect groundwater flow, so it was great seeing examples up here in the hills. Faults were visible as breaks in the horizontal structure of the cooled lava flows, but their size varied widely. Some faults looked simply like the rock had been cut and one side moved, while others took the form of 50 meter wide zone of pulverized rock! This was definitely food for thought when considering the faults on the map. I’ll have to do more research to see whether the ones I’m studying are of the 5 inch or 50 yard variety.


This is a fault outcrop to the left of the road, believe it or not…



An incredibly scenic lunch break beside the Hight Fault Zone in the Blue Mountains

At the end of the day we retreated to the air conditioning and giant plates of food at La Ramada, which along with the Dairy Queen and El Sombrero represented the sum total of dining options of Milton-Freewater. The Hank FM country station was kind enough to info us that the local cider brewery, Blue Mountain Cider, had a tap room open on Thursdays. It was a treat to finally taste the apples we had been working among all week, especially in liquid form after a hot day.

We got a total of 12 wells sampled last week. Jen and I are heading back out later this month to try to knock out the next 9 samples and to see if there are any additional wells where we can just take samples for oxygen and hydrogen isotopes. Additionally, we’re doing the OWRD’s quarterly check of water level recording equipment in wells around the area. Stay tuned for Part 2!



Strike, Dip, and Skis

Hoodoo summit

Mt. Washington selfie on top of Hoodoo Butte!

It’s been something of a theme in my recent blog posts that the west-coast mountains are a source of nerdy joy for this recently transplanted geoscientist. This winter I went on my department’s grad student ski weekend to try out this whole zooming-down-mountains-on-sticks thing and get a chance to hang out at Mt. Bachelor with a convivial bunch of folks. I got thoroughly hooked despite spending much of my time crashing on the bunny hill and watching the 4-year-olds effortlessly ski past me. It’s a whole new way to appreciate the volcanic history of the northwest! (hmm, that sounds like a blog post series once this term is finished…)

Two weekends ago I progressed to wiping out on the blue-level slopes instead of the greens (baby steps!), and a thought hit me out of the blue that dramatically improved my control over my skiing.

‘What would a Brunton compass tell me about this line?”

I promise I hadn’t hit my head and lost my marbles on the previous “yard sale” fall where my scarf, poles, and skis ended up strewn around me. For my non-geologist readers, a Brunton compass is the strange but useful combination of a compass, mirror, and level that geologists use to measure the dip (steepest angle) of a tilted piece of rock as well as the strike (cardinal direction perpendicular to dip, and the direction where the Brunton is completely level).

I was skiing down the Glade route at Timberline and my trusty “aim to the edge of the run to slow down” method was failing me miserably half of the time. I had a flashback to the last time I was in mountains, swearing at my Brunton at Indiana University’s field camp in the mountains of Montana. In that moment of clarity I realized that if the mountainside was a tilted rock layer I was expecting the route to be perpendicular to the strike (true dip, i.e. straight down) while it was actually at an angle (following a shallower apparent dip). By aiming to the edge I was going to the steeper true dip and accelerating – exactly the opposite of what I wanted to to do!


It’s a universal truth in physics, particularly noticeable for people who ski or mountain bike, that the steeper your trajectory the faster you’ll accelerate. Friction determines the maximum speed. In my case gravity conspires with my properly waxed skis to set my maximum speed on the steeper blue routes much faster than I have the skill to control, hence the wipe-outs.

If the route is straight downhill following the “true dip” of the geologic example, I can ski either to the right or left to decelerate to a more comfortable speed. This holds true for the “Over Easy” route I first skied/slid down at Mt. Bachelor, most routes at Mt. Hoodoo, or for the Magic Mile routes at Timberline. These routes are aimed pretty much straight down the side of the mountain.

true dip skiier

However if the route is at an angle to the steepest possible line, then it is following the geologic “apparent dip” of the landscape. In that case, if I ski to my right, away from the angle of the route, I would find myself skiing at a steeper angle towards the true dip and accelerating into a snow bank.

apparent dip skiier

Geology students find ourselves tripped up in less spectacular ways when faced with eroded inclined structures, where the true dip of the rock bed isn’t perpendicular to the eroded top of the formation.


Week 5 of field camp: why the heck is the hillside shaped like an “M”?

On a contorted landscape like these hills near Doherty Mountain in Montana, it was all too easy to ignore the wobbling level bubble in my Brunton compass in the rush to finish surveying an area. After the first day we all put our notes together and realized that none of us agreed on the dip of the hillside. We had been fooled into interpreting the easiest path to walk across the hill as “horizontal” and measured various apparent dips.

apparent dip geologist

As enjoyable as my class made it to trek up those hills through the bushes and snakes, wouldn’t it be even more fun to ski  down them over a nice smooth blanket of snow…


Hiking Tumalo Creek in Bend, OR- wait, what’s that pipeline?

I could try to be coy and let you think that this snowy post happened, say, last weekend and I’m being a timely blogger who never has a backlog, but I’ll be honest. This has been kicking around since my housemate and I went adventuring over Thanksgiving break. Better late than never!

If the campground host tells you that the Tumalo Creek Campground near Bend is only going to get down to a low of 40 degrees in late November, be smarter than me and don’t believe them. On the plus-side, my friend Liz and I were so cold that we packed up camp at 7AM and were the first ones on the trail in a winter wonderland. We had the North Fork trail along Tumalo Creek all to ourselves!

trail map and bend city watershed


As we hiked up to above Tumalo Falls I felt the ground crunch satisfyingly under my feet. I looked down, and saw that I was walking on these strange, fragile columns of ice! Each tuft was about 1 to 2 inches tall and supported a very thin layer of soil. I had to file it away in my head as “nature is weird”, but once I got home I found out that it’s called needle ice. This forms when the soil temperature is above freezing but the air’s is below freezing. As capillary action pulls water up through the soil it freezes in long vertical strands.


Tumalo Falls! But why is it here? The sign in the parking lot has a handy explanation – this sheer cliff was created as the headwall of a glacier during the Ice Age.



Liz was just a little happy to see the first snow on the trail as we climbed… and it got better!


The trail didn’t have enough snow for snowshoes, but was precarious going in boots. We were glad for our trekking poles.


After Tumalo Falls, there are several beautiful smaller waterfalls further up North Fork Trail on Tumalo Creek. This one had a prow of rock jutting out in front of it that made a perfectly scenic picnic spot.



We found a snowman hiding in a hollow log – a little gift from a hiker the previous day!



Liz contemplating another waterfall along Tumalo Creek.

That day we did the North Fork Trail as an out-and-back route, which took us from 8:30 AM to 1pm. We had hoped to make a loop with the Swampy Lakes and Bridge Creek trails, but the icy trail made for more difficult going than we had planned, and we decided to bail on the 8 mile loop in favor of a 6-mile hike. Heading back to the trailhead around 11AM we started to pass other hikers and a seemingly endless parade of their adorable dogs.

After our chilly hike, I wanted to drive down to Mt. Bachelor to see what a ski resort looked like in the winter. There might be a theme here  – being from a hometown that’s lucky to get an inch of snow, I’m fascinated by my first glimpses of snow sports! Liz kindly humored me, and we drank our pricey hot cocoa on the patio watching the snowboarders and skiers play in the disappointingly thin layer of powder. Mt. Bachelor is a ridiculously perfect dormant volcanic cone – you’ll definitely be seeing more posts about this area when I have time to read up on volcanology. Again, not a subject we have to think about much in Tennessee.

To end the day, we drove into downtown Bend to window shop in the cute town center and have dinner at Deschutes Brewery. We were just in time to watch the Oregon State University versus University of Oregon ‘Civil War’ game….ouch. The Ducks beat our Beavers 69-10. At least the delicious food and beer cushioned the blows somewhat. (The next day, I passed a church’s sign that said “Don’t worry Beavs, there’s still basketball.” Small comfort.)

I couldn’t help but notice that as we crossed the bridge to the Tumalo Creek Trailhead, a large pipe crossed the stream with us. Once in the parking lot, stern “KEEP OUT” notices shepherded us away from a gate to some new-looking buildings by the stream. To make matters more curious to this hydrologist, the trail map warned

“City of Bend Watershed:

Hiker use only (No Dogs, Stock, or Bicycles)

No Camping, No Fires”.

After some Google sleuthing, it turns out that this mysterious complex is the Heidi Lansdowne Water Intake Facility and that pipe is part of a 10-mile aqueduct that runs under Skyliner Road to the Outback Water Treatment Facility just west of Bend.

city of bend surface water system

Image showing the original 1926 Bend water systems from a 2014 presentation by Heidi Lansdowne

If we had been able to do our whole loop, we would have been hiking through the water supply area for the City of Bend! The rain that falls in this area flows down to Bridge Creek, where a portion of that water is diverted through the Intake Facility into the pipeline before the stream joins Tumalo Creek. The Heidi Lansdowne Intake Facility was built in 2016 to get the city into compliance with EPA regulations requiring filtration of surface waters.

Heidi Landsdowne Water Intake Facility

Picture of the new intake facility from Bend Water Utility

Bend has been meeting its needs with water from Bridge Creek since 1926 when it signed an agreement with the US Forest Service (USFS) allow Bend to manage the Bridge Creek Watershed. In 1926 Bend built a basic intake and filtration facility connected to a pipeline leading to town, and added an additional parallel pipeline in the 1950s. Until 2016,  Bend still relied on these two aging pipelines. In 2014 the city broke ground on the new intake facility with advanced screening to protect fish and provide a better filter to protect against elevated sediment loads caused by wildfires as well as a more modern pipeline running directly underneath Skyliner Road.


A photo of the pipeline in progress in 2014, from the same 2014 presentation by Heidi Lansdowne

All this rambling to say that there are good reasons that this watershed is protected against:

  • Dogs – minimizing biological contamination from excrement, such as giardia
  • Stock/Cattle – minimizing fecal contamination as well, also the excess suspended sediment that they kick up in streams as they drink
  • Fires – reducing the risk that campfires will turn into wildfires that choke the streams with ash and then increase the risk of catastrophic flooding that could block the intake filters with sediment
  • Campers – because we leave embarrassing amounts of garbage behind
  • Bicycles – mountain bikes carve deeply into the trails, increasing the amount of sediment that is washed into the stream

Seeing as this is the source for much of what flows out of the taps of almost 80,000 people, it’s understandable that the public utility wants to avoid these risks.

To give you a sense of this system’s scale compared to the town, I created a map using and to show Bend, the municipal watershed, the intake and treatment facilities, and the new aqueduct (the dark blue line between the facilities). GEOG 370: Cartography this term paid off!

Mapbox bend water


Bend Water Utility – Bend Water Project

Bridge Creek Pipeline Replacement Project | City of Bend. (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2018, from
Hammers, S. (2014, May 29). Work begins on Bend’s water treatment facility. Retrieved March 15, 2018, from
No settlement on Bend water project. (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2018, from
Park – Horse Trails Bicycle Trails.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Park, S. (n.d.). Horse Trails Bicycle Trails, 1.
USFS Special Use Permit for City of Bend, October 1976, showdocument.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from


Road Trip Part 4: Columbia River Gorge

This is the final installment of my series following my father and my cross-country road trip from Tennessee to Oregon so I could start my master’s program at Oregon State University.

Road Trip Part 1: Why are the high plains so flat?!

Road Trip Part 2: Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin

Road Trip Part 3: The Wasatch Range

Day 6: Salt Lake City, through Idaho, to Pendleton, OR. Sorry Idaho, I’m skipping your geology, maybe another blog post…

Day 7: Pendleton, OR to Corvallis, OR!

The last big geologic conundrum of my trip was the giant layer cake of volcanic deposits that came into view along Highway 84 just past Boardman. The Columbia River sliced through it like a knife, revealing stair-stepping steep cliffs.


Highway 84 clings to the side of these cliffs for dear life, and every now and then a spur road would snake up the cliff to a town perched high above.

Welcome to the Columbia River Gorge! The river has cut 4,000 feet down into almost  basalt deposits up to 2 miles deep over the past 15 millions years, and the results are amazing.


Tennessee’s only volcanic rocks are thin ash deposits, so this landscape was utterly foreign. My research on the topic was delayed by the first three blog posts and a 20-page paper on the philosophy of geography, but during the week of final exams I found Central Washington University professor Nick Zenter’s engaging video series on YouTube.  He gives a wonderful introduction to the geologic world of the Pacific Northwest in a format that’s friendly to both non-geologists and geologists whose brains are too fried by studying to read off-topic academic journals. Manatash Mapping out of Ellensburg, WA made some of the best maps I found of the basalt flows to accompany his lectures: the one below shows the total extent of the Columbia River basalts! The Columbia Gorge is not indicated on these maps, but it defines the OR/WA border from just south of Pasco, WA to the Pacific Ocean.


Brown shading = the sum of the area covered by over 300 basalt flows. 63,320 square miles in all!

This giant pile of 41,985 cubic miles of basalt was belched out by a swarm of “dikes”, or vertical ruptures in the Earth’s crust where lava escaped, between 17 million and 6 millions years ago. 80% of this lava came to the surface between 16.5 and 15.5 million years ago as part of the Grande Ronde Member, which we saw as we drove through the Columbia River Gorge. The Grande Ronde basalts flowed out of the dikes in the area where Washington, Oregon, and Idaho’s borders meet on the map below.


Orange = area covered by Columbia River Basalt Groups, Black lines = approximate locations of dikes

The next map shows the approximate depths of these lava flows, focusing on the Washington-Oregon border. While depths in the Gorge are between 0.5 and 2 miles, the flows are 3 miles thick in south-central Washington!


These flows continued east, following the path of the Columbia all the way to the Pacific. However west of the Cascades, as we approached Portland, the wetter climate hides the sheer cliffs with a carpet of trees.



Looking upriver from an overlook near Hood River, Oregon.

But what caused the Earth’s surface to split open and spew out vast sheets of lava? 16 million years ago in the middle of the Miocene period of geologic time, northern Oregon and southeastern Washington would have looked a lot like the fiery slopes of Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii, or Mt. Bardarbunga in Iceland.


Pendleton, OR in the Mid-Miocene?

Geologists don’t have a definitive answer yet, although many interacting geologic events have been proposed to have contributed to the eruptions.

  1. The eruptions may be related to the historical path of the Yellowstone Mantle Plume, or “hot spot”. The oldest dikes in southern Oregon opened up just as the Yellowstone hot spot was erupting in what is now northern Nevada, directly south of the dikes.
  2. As the North American plate moved to the southwest over the hot spot towards its current position, cracks in the crust radiated northward, likely along lines of weakness between accreted terranes (bands of islands and sea floor scraped onto the continent by subducting plates) and the core of the continental shield.
  3. As the Farallon oceanic plate collided with and sank beneath the North American plate, crumpling the Coast Ranges and creating the stratovolcanoes of the Cascade range, these stresses could have helped open up these dikes. The majority of the dikes are perpendicular to that west-to-east direction of stress, which would be typical, and the eruptions happened directly after the collision.
  4. It’s possible that after the Farallon Plate slid under North America, parts of it tore open along long north-to-south trending lines. A tear in this subducted plate could allow hot rock to rise up from the upper mantle and punch through weaknesses in the crust.

Luckily for us these dikes have been quiet for the past 6 million years, and don’t show signs of starting back up. Nowadays, only water flows through the Columbia River Gorge. I’m looking forward to going back and exploring the many waterfalls that feed into it this spring as during our road trip in late August 2017 the area was ablaze for a different reason –  forest fires!


Columbia River Flood Basalts | Volcano World | Oregon State University. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2017, from
Liu, L., & Stegman, D. R. (2012). Origin of Columbia River flood basalt controlled by propagating rupture of the Farallon slab. Nature, 482(7385), 386–389.
Zentner, Nick, Narrator. Flood Basalts of the Pacific Northwest. , Central Washington University, 2017, Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Applying to graduate school with Courtney and Beaker


If personal narratives aren’t your cup of tea I totally understand if you want to skip this post and wait til I post something involving rocks (Road trip part 4 is coming soon, I promise!). I’m writing this post for those who stand where I stood in May 2013, struggling to define their academic goals and career path.

Tl:dr version: You aren’t alone if you don’t have any idea of what you want to do for grad school or careers straight out of undergrad. Take the scenic route, try out jobs, and ask a lot of questions!  And just like in any scientific endeavor if you fail, take a good hard look at your methods, gather a team, and try again.

If I hear someone say “You can do anything!” one more time, I will probably have an allergic reaction that causes me to sprint out the door and down the street while making small panicked noises like Beaker in the Muppets.beaker_meep__meep__meep__animated_badge_by_blue_staple_studios-d94gpzx

(possibly my spirit animal)

‘Tis the season for graduate school applications, so I thought I’d share how I ended up at Oregon State! It meant taking some relatively risky moves instead of the safer option of staying in one place, as if my true calling would one day show up on my doorstep if I was patient enough. This was nerve-wracking but rewarding and involved doing things like decamping to California for a seasonal job, or prying myself out of my introvert shell to cold-email dozens of people. Early in the process of thinking about graduate school, when I heard a well-meaning “you can do anything you want!” some part of my brain translated it it to “you should do everything, if you aren’t then you’re failing, and what if you miss an opportunity of a lifetime while you’re doing something else?”

Because of that fear of commitment, graduate school application was initially an intimidating process for me in my senior year of university. Grad schools require a different mindset than undergraduate programs to apply because the academic and personal fit between the applicant and advisor is so crucial. There’s no Princeton Review guidebook to give a tidy 1-100 ranking of schools. I didn’t even know how to formulate the questions to get help choosing a program then. I would have needed my advisor to dive inside my head and read my mind, which is still firmly in the realm of sci-fi. Talking to grad students at Vanderbilt, they made it seem so effortless to make up their minds about what subject they wanted to devote 2-6 years to. It flowed out of an undergraduate research project, or a natural interest, or something that “just made sense”.

It didn’t help that, by the fall of my senior year, the interdisciplinary major that I had designed to study climate change was revealing to me exactly how complicated that issue was and how it could weave itself through any narrative I looked at. Did I want to study paleoclimates, or atmospheric sciences, or environmental justice, or energy sustainability, or…..? Indecision froze me like a deer in the headlights.


Beaker trying to disappear

Several different possible paths occurred to me that spring of my senior year. I could go into private or public research, which would eventually require a higher degree and those mystifying applications to graduate school. I could look into becoming a park ranger, guide, or outdoor educator, based on both my academic and non-academic passions. I could go into the nebulous field of “consulting”, based on a conversation at an environmental careers dinner. So, I figured that it would be best to try them out.

To start off with I got a fantastic GeoCorps internship at Mammoth Caves National Parks, where I learned that being a park ranger involves unlimited outdoor time frolicking through natural science (and facilities maintenance), but also finding a new posting every six months and a best-case scenario of being promoted to a stable management job where I would be banished to an office.

Who needs free weights when I have a hammer drill and a 6-mile hike to the cave entrance?

With a bit of legwork I got a position as an intern at an environmental consulting firm where I learned the nuts and bolts of regulations and customer service, and how complicated it is to balance clients’ business interests and the environment.

C with tanks.jpg

After the terms of that internship came to a close I headed out to California to work for Naturalists at Large, where I learned that no matter how much I can geek out over geology, rock climbing, and birds, keeping classes of middle school students amused is not my forte, and neither is finding a new outdoor recreation gig every single season.

This process of elimination left grad school, probably earth science as a career, and my nature cravings as a side hobby.

While in California I had applied to Indiana University’s summer field school (and only that one field camp, because I still felt like relying on dumb luck), because I figured that if I were to go the grad school route I would need it. In a ringing endorsement for dumb luck I got in, and it changed my life. No, seriously. I was doing science! I didn’t have to worry about whether I was cut out to be an earth scientist, because I was doing the earth scientist things, and doing them well! Hiking around the Tobacco Root Mountains of Montana wasn’t half bad either.

Stream temperature experiment/pool party at the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park

In hindsight, field camp bumped me up to about 40% ready to apply to graduate school from 10%.

The next 20% was acquired over months of job applications, paper-reading, blog-writing, talking informally with professors and professionals, tutoring middle- and high- school students in earth science and English literature, volunteering with a USGS data analysis project, and getting hired full-time at the environmental consulting firm where I had interned. I went to visit professors at University of Pennsylvania, University of Delaware, and Johns Hopkins while living on my sister’s couch for a few weeks, which gave me practice talking with professors, a sense of how graduate programs were structured, and desensitized my anxious self to interviews. Volunteering as a data analyst with the USGS gave me an additional recommendation-letter-writer as well as experience with data analysis! Through all that, I narrowed down my impossibly wide interest to water issues stemming from climate change, leaning towards quantity instead of quality.

The last 40% was gained in four months of targeted cold-emailing of potential advisors, phone calls with those professors, obsessive research in my field, and a 2015 Geological Society of America conference where I walked up to random people and piped up “Hi, my name is Courtney, I’m currently working in environmental consulting, what do you do?” followed by a few minutes of listening, followed by “where should I go to graduate school to study how climate change and human use patterns affect water resources?”. You’d be surprise how well that works. It’s shockingly easy. If you had told me in my senior year of college that I would do that 15-20 times in a day I would have backed away quietly with a polite and petrified grin plastered across my face. Geologists being a friendly bunch, sometimes people told me “ask that guy over there, I’ve got no clue”, and most were happy to give me a lead or two.

I explored civil engineering, hydrology, geology, and geography masters programs. Because of my interdisciplinary interest, I ended up focusing on large state schools that had the breadth of faculty and funding to have created a dedicated working group for water resources. I had enjoyed creating my own major in college, but wanted the stability of an existing program to give my Masters degree more weight and to not have to explain it in detail to everyone I meet. Geography programs really stood out here – Vanderbilt didn’t have a department in this field, but I realized that it was pretty much perfect for me!

Based on all of these conversations at GSA and elsewhere, I figured out what angle I wanted to take on “water issues stemming from climate change, leaning towards quantity instead of quality” – geographical methods, instead of strictly hydrological or ecological.

Then I made a spreadsheet based on that info, and set about fleshing it out.

grad school spreadsheet screenshot.png

It has 34 rows, one for each potential advisor I contacted at twelve schools.

This might give the impression that I’m a naturally organized person who loves cold-calling, which isn’t the case. It’s challenging for me and sometimes prompts me to curl up in a blanket at 5:30 in the evening with soothing instrumental folk music. However, it’s the hurdle to get to science that I love and opportunities that I need, so I made myself the tools to get over it. I set a goal of four professors or current grad students contacted per week, and met it most weeks. I found out that no matter how many intelligent questions I think of before I call a professor, they will all fly out of my head once I’m on the phone unless they’re written on a sheet of paper in front of me, preferably in several eye-catching colors of pen. I have a wonderful sister who will reassure me that I’m a worthwhile person when I text her at midnight after hours of tying my thoughts in knots about an awkward conversation. Spreadsheets help me fish thoughts and information out of my brain, put them in words, and manipulate them in a useful way.

For example, University of Arizona took about 10 hours of research, 3 calls to current grad students, 3 calls to faculty, and a spreadsheet of its own to sort out the tangle of water research options and who teaches where.

u of a spreadsheet screenshot.png

Based on all that information, I narrowed my choices down to geography programs at five universities. That done, I had to make it easy enough for myself to keep track of the five applications that I would actually complete them and not forget anything. This meant another spreadsheet… and a whole lot of refreshing my email inbox.

apps spreadsheet screenshot.png

And after all this work, I got into exactly 0 schools in the spring of 2016. For reasons related to over-committed professors, funding cuts, and the fact the I applied to the most competitive programs in my field, I wasn’t judged to be a suitable enough fit to accept and fund. April was a pretty ghastly month for my mental state as I frantically tried to piece together another timeline for my life that didn’t involved driving off into the sunset towards a graduate program in August 2016.


Beaker’s file being tossed…

I allowed myself about two solid weeks of denial, self-pity, and comfort food, and then I reached out to some lovely friends who shut down the pity-party. We made a list of next steps:

  • Reach out to the schools to request a post-mortem of my application
  • Take the ASBOG exam to work towards professional development and freshen up my geology skills
  • Continue with my current job
  • Take a statistics course
  • Write appealingly nerdy things on my blog
  • Get a gym membership and start climbing again with my newfound free time
  • Restart the grad school search in August 2016, and try to focus it more on research
  • The silver lining: I now had an extra year to make myself that much of a better candidate.

In the fall of 2016 I reapplied to Oregon State and applied to San Diego State, University of Waterloo, and Southern Illinois University using the same tools and all that knowledge I had gleaned from potential professors/advisors in 2015. I had described a broader focus on my 2015 applications, but had focused my interested down to the geography of groundwater management during the 2016 applications. This 2016 specialization allowed me to better pinpoint potential advisors and make the case for how I could fit into their programs, and also probably made me look like a more committed candidate on my applications. I figured that if I had gotten into 0/5 schools in 2016, I might get into 1 out of 4 schools in 2017.

What did I do differently?

  • Reached out to professors earlier in the fall
  • Had a more defined research interest
  • Asked more specifically if they had research they could fund me for, or if not who in their department did
  • Posted on the Earth Science Women’s Network Facebook page asking for recommendations of schools with ambitious and possibly underrated groundwater faculty that weren’t on my radar
  • Stayed in closer contact with my letter-of-recommendation writers

In the spring of 2017 I won the grad school applicant lottery – I got into all! Four! Schools! All the important people in my life had to deal with text messages IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME HOLY MOLY.


Beaker playing “Ode to Joy”!

I hope that the takeaway of all this is that if you’re applying to graduate school, you need to talk to people. As many people as possible. This was my biggest obstacle when I first started applying – I didn’t want to bother anybody. Additionally, I was ashamed to ask for help even when I knew how to articulate my questions, as I thought it would make people think I wasn’t good enough to begin with. Eventually I learned that few people are bothered as long as I did research beforehand to avoid asking them to regurgitate the contents of the personal website for my benefit, which nobody has any inclination to do.

I found that academics, students, and professionals alike generally like talking about what they do and helping people out if they’ve got the time. An applicant can take respectful advantage of that to learn what’s out there. The worst anybody can say to you is “no”, and it’s almost never personal. It boils down to seeing if the professor is doing what you want to study and has funding, and then convincing them that they really do need your unique talents and brainpower.

And don’t worry if those talents change from conversation to conversation, especially if you have an insanely broad initial focus like I did. I settled on a messy process of deciding on a certain way of selling my skill set to a potential advisor so they would at least talk to me, using what I learned from that conversation to improve my focus, and then pitching that improved focus again or to another professor. Sometimes I talk about different research ideas with different potential advisers, just to see which one I enjoyed talking about the most. I had barely managed to pull together a coherent idea of a academic goal as I careened into the December 2015/January 2016 deadlines, and came up with the new and improved version 2.0 by December 2016.

If I have to pick a metaphor for finding my calling after college, it’s less like a package delivered to my doorstep and more like a Pony Express run to deliver a shapeshifting package to an address I can only find at the end of a scavenger hunt. But I made it, and you can too.

Happy trails!

If you want to pick my brain, to commiserate, a copy of my spreadsheets to use as a template, or advice for cold-emailing, let me know in the comments.

Road Trip Part 3: The Wasatch Range

Road Trip Part 1

Road Trip Part 2

Days 4 and 5: Salt Lake City, Utah

Of all the places for my car to start hemorrhaging power steering fluid, Salt Lake City turned out to be one of the better ones.  I dropped it off at the mechanic and then my cousin Scott distracted me with a trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to one of his all-time favorite places – the Snowbird ski resort.


View from the top of Hidden Valley Peak!

Scott said he always enjoyed introducing out-of-staters to his hometown, but I hope that my constant stream of “oh my GOSH WOW” coming from the backseat on the way up the canyon didn’t get too annoying.  I mean, what’s a geologist to do? We passed glacial moraines AND fault scarps AND giant granite intrusions AND hanging glacial valleys AND massive thrust-faulted hodgepodges of sedimentary rock AND not to mention that view of Salt Lake to the west…

All this is possible because Salt Lake City and the adjacent Wasatch Range are perched on a unique boundary – the very eastern edge of the Basin and Range Province of the USA. Yep, you guessed it, it involves the Laramide Orogeny like everything covered in my last two posts, but also the Laramide’s fraternal twin mountain-building event. Meet the Sevier Orogeny.

Image result for sevier orogeny

(courtesy of the Wyoming State Geological Survey)

Both the Sevier and the Laramide  happened at roughly the same time (70-50 million years ago) on account of the same pressure (the subducting Farallon Plate). However, two areas of the USA responded differently to the pressure. In areas further east, such as Colorado, eastern Wyoming, and Montana, that pressure hit areas of the continental basement which had been weakened when the supercontinent Rodinia was ripped apart 750 million years ago (mya) and the Ancestral Rockies rose around 300 mya. The weakened continental basement rock buckled under the stress. Geologists refer to this as “Laramide-Style” orogeny, and I saw its results in the Colorado Rockies and the “basement-cored” ranges in the South Wyoming such as the Rawlins and Rock Springs uplifts.

The pressure from the colliding and subducting plate manifested differently further west (Utah, Western Wyoming and Montana) where the continental basement rocks had not been cracked by previous mountain-building or continental rifting. Here, the many layers of sedimentary rock deposited in the Cretaceous Seaway took the strain as the basement rocks got scrunched together. These thin layers cracked and thrust over each other like shuffled decks of cards, creating the thin-skinned “Sevier-Style” orogeny. This style is evident in jumbled, repeated bands of rock in the Wasatch range. The corresponding geologic map looks like one of those scribble-and-fill masterpieces that happened when I first discover MS Paint in 6th grade.

Snowbird geo

Geologic units on the Snowbird property (blue boundary) – note the repeated purple, lilac, and mauve bands of rock. These represent sedimentary units between 1 billion and 350 million years old! The yellow blobs on top are bulldozed bits of sediment from glacial activity ~15,000 years ago

The Western USA breathed a sigh of relief once the Farallon plate completely disappeared under the North American Plate around 50 million years ago.  The continental basement, full of north-south trending cracks and pent-up tension from the insistent force of the collison, relaxed westward and flexed downward along those lines of weakness.  A simplified version of that is shown in the diagram below…

Image result for basin and range formation

Image from the University of Georgia,

This had some peculiar consequences for Utah, Nevada, and bits of the surrounding states. You can see this from space!

Basin and Range

ESRI basemap + USGS physiographic province data.

The decompression of the earth’s crust caused a maze of roughly north-south trending valleys and mountain ranges. Additionally, it dropped this whole area to a level where water could not get over the Sierra Nevadas to the Pacific or the Continental Divide to the Atlantic.  The Basin and Range Province became a giant version of the Great Divide Basin where water can only flow into its local valley and evaporate, and the Great Salt Lake is the poster child.

The formation of the Basin and Range landscape isn’t anywhere near done, to the dismay of city planners in Salt Lake City. Utah’s capitol sits right on top of the fault zone where the Great Salt Lake’s basin is sporadically sliding down the edge of the Wasatch Range. This is evident along the edge of the mountains where you can see (geologically) recent fault scarps from the highway.

faults and landmarks

Everything right of the brown lines is rising, and everything to the left is sliding down…

My photo didn’t come out, so here’s a better one from TaylorScienceGeeks with yellow arrows pointing to the faults I saw from Hwy 215

In the Little Cottonwood Canyon part of the Wasatch Range, to add insult to injury, a giant blob of magma rose from the tail of the subducting plate 30 million years ago and punched through the already disheveled layers of sedimentary rock. Most locals refer to the rock as the “white” or “Temple” granite, but the smooth, bare cliffs are actually made of a relative of granite called quartz monzonite that has less quartz and a more even balance of two kinds of feldspar minerals. This massive batholith (geology-ese for “giant blob of magma), now unearthed by millions of years of erosion, is currently home to some world-class rock climbing routes and a Church of the Latter Day Saints top-secret genealogy bunker.


I couldn’t manage to get a good photo of the Little Cottonwood formation without the car door in it, here’s a beautiful one from (c) Scott

On the way back down the valley it was easy to see traces of the latest force of nature in the canyon. During the last glacial maximum 15,000 years ago, the road we drove on would have been under hundreds of feet of ice! Both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons were occupied by huge glaciers fed by precipitation fueled by the ancient Lake Bonneville, driven up the mountains by western winds, and dumped in the Wasatch Range as snow. As these well-fed rivers of ice scraped downhill they carved out the dramatic steep-walled valley that we see today. The piles of pulverized rock shoved ahead and to the sides of the glaciers remain at the mouths of the canyons and are now mined as construction fill. The same climate pattern bears out today, with a warmer average temperature and a smaller lake, as the powdery snow that Scott loves to shred down at Snowbird.


If you were wondering, the cable car ride to Hidden Peak is totally worth it, and not just for the thoughtful signs!

On Thursday, with my car still up in the air, Scott took my dad and me downtown to see the famous monument built out of Little Cottonwood Canyon’s quartz monzonite – The Church of the Latter Day Saint’s Temple Square.

When the congregation outgrew the original temple they moved to a giant structure that could hold 20,000 Saints at a time and has a forest on the roof! In order to avoid the weight of organic soils up there, the engineers used ground-up shale from the Wasatch Range to anchor the plants and  then pile on the fertilizer.


Scott and I with the guide


Pulverized shale “dirt”, at 1/3 of the weight of the real thing


Just as we were leaving the conference center I got the call saying that my car was ready to roll again. That afternoon we said goodbye to Scott and Salt Lake City, and headed north to a very different landscape indeed. Goodbye mountains, hello giant lakes of (cooled) lava!

Stay tuned for Road Trip Part 4: Snake River Plain and Columbia Gorge.


“Glad You Asked: How Was Utah’s Topography Formed? – Utah Geological Survey.” Accessed October 25, 2017.
“Little Cottonwood Canyon – Utah Geological Survey.” Accessed October 25, 2017.
“Wasatch! Part 1 – Geological Evidence of a Fearsome Fault.” The Trembling Earth (blog), May 8, 2013.
Eldredge, Sandra N. The Wasatch Fault. Vol. 40. Utah Geological Survey, 1996.
“Knowledge of Utah Thrust System Pushes Forward – Utah Geological Survey.” Accessed October 30, 2017.