Grinding Out Lessons From the Earth

Framed by OSU's library of ocean sediment cores collected from around the world, Robert Duncan (right) explains to Paul Walczak of Nehalem, Oregon, how the cores are catalogued. Then a master's student, Walczak is now a faculty research assistant in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. (Photo: Dennis Wolverton)

When Jeremiah Oxford, a master’s student from Coos Bay, Oregon, isn’t in class or writing a paper, he puts his mind to that most unacademic of tasks: grinding rocks. Tedious as it might sound, his work in Robert Duncan’s lab in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences isn’t a punishment. Instead, he is preparing samples of volcanic rock that, when analyzed by a recently developed dating technique, may add details to the story of Earth’s violent past.

Students and other scientists in Duncan’s lab use rocks from around the world — the Columbia River basin, western India and undersea mountains from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic — to reveal a pattern of massive lava flows that make Mount St. Helens seem puny in comparison. These events occurred millions of years ago, says Duncan, associate dean for student programs, and had wide-ranging consequences, from the creation of petroleum reservoirs to global extinctions of plant and animal species.

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As a graduate student in OSU’s Geochronology Laboratory, Sam VanLaningham is using river sediments to get a new look at past ocean circulation and climate change in the Pacific Northwest. Read his personal story about working with OSU professors Bob Duncan and Nick Pisias.

Duncan and his team were the first to apply a chemical dating technique to the study of massive lava flows. Their reports have been widely cited in the scientific literature, resulting in Duncan becoming one of the 250 most frequently cited geoscientists in the world, according to the ISI Web of Science, a scientific information service.

Educational opportunity — the chance for students to be engaged in science — is the other side of the research coin for Duncan, the Rohm Professor of Oceanographic Education at OSU. Created in 1991 by a gift from Alice Rohm, the endowment supports his work with initiatives such as the Native American Marine and Space Science (NAMSS) program, Teachers at Sea and Suitcase Lessons, a set of marine science educational activities.

“I enjoy working with students and helping to excite them with the opportunity to do research,” says Duncan who teaches introductory oceanography. He also directs the NAMSS program, pairing students with faculty mentors in five OSU colleges. In turn, these students teach elementary and middle school students through OSU’s SMILE (Science and Math Integrative Learning Experiences) program and the annual Salmon Camp at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. NAMSS students have a 95 percent graduation rate, with 55 percent going to graduate school.