Good Times, Better Ages

By Elisabeth Nadin - Winter 2016

Several years ago, geoscientists gathered to discuss how EarthScope could meet its own challenge to address the time component in its core science goal of understanding the evolution of the North American continent. Independently of this mission, it was becoming apparent in the broader community that geochronology labs faced difficulties in finding users, and conversely, users had trouble finding labs that met their needs.

From this fortuitous convergence came the AGeS (Awards for Geochronology Student research) program, an effort to help pair students with a reputable lab in order to gain geochronologic data—and, perhaps more importantly, skills—integral to their own tectonic puzzles.

A team of geoscientists solicited information from geochronology labs across the country that were interested in forming new collaborations, then offered graduate students a pool of money to visit these labs, learn their techniques, and get results for projects that align with EarthScope scientific objectives.

The results:

  • 34 labs across the country joined the endeavor—visit for a list of the broad array of geochronology services offered.
  • 47 students submitted proposals for funding in the first round of the EarthScope AGeS program.
  • 10 proposals were awarded an average of $8,500.

The awarded proposals cover a range of topics, including understanding earthquake cycles, linking source rocks to sediment sinks, and analyzing the evolution of topography, deformation, and magma generation.

Among these projects, Sean Kinney (Columbia University) was awarded funds for high-resolution U-Pb zircon dating at Princeton University. He is examining the White Mountain magma series in New Hampshire, which contains two distinct magma bodies—one that associated with voluminous 200-million-year-old magmatism and the nascent Atlantic basin, and the other that may relate to now-extinct hotspot activity along the eastern margin of North America. So far, he has determined new crystallization ages for these rocks that links them with the onset of rifting, meeting the EarthScope objective to evaluate the timing of continental breakup.

Another recipient, Shelby Fredrickson (UC Santa Barbara), used her AGeS award to date a marine terrace near Carpinteria, CA, with optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) at Utah State University. Her preliminary results suggest that this terrace, which lies just south of the “big bend” of the San Andreas fault, has moved upward at a rate of ~2 mm/yr since it was deposited around 35 thousand years ago. Ongoing uplift related to motion along the fault contributes to earthquakes in this seismically active region.

Rebecca Flowers (CU-Boulder) talks about the EarthScope AGeS program, which is entering its second round.

Q: Tell us a bit more about the program.

A: Students can travel to a geochronology facility, be trained in a technique, and acquire data for a collaborative project with the lab. Last year’s proposals mostly involved analytical work at one lab, but there is the opportunity to visit several.

Q: How did the program come about?

A: It emerged from discussions with the EarthScope steering committee on the role of geochronology in EarthScope. Among the core goals of the science plan are the structure, dynamics, and evolution of the North American continent. This program was created to better address the third core goal of EarthScope, to decipher North American continental evolution.

We designed the program specifically to provide intellectual support to students—it’s not meant to just fund contract work. The idea is that the student can approach a lab with their idea and try to sell it. If the lab considers it to be a mutually beneficial project, they can help with the proposal and provide a support letter. Then if the project is funded, the student will visit the lab, prepare samples and acquire data, and get help from the lab in interpreting the data.

Q: How do you view the success of the program?

A: I feel that we had an extremely positive response from the labs, from users of geochronology, and from students. We were very pleased with getting 47 proposals submitted—we had considered it would be successful if we got half that number. And we have 34 participating labs.

We specifically designed the program to better link users and producers of geochronologic data, and to provide seed data for new collaborative projects. It can been difficult for scientists who don’t have connections with geochronology labs to know who to contact about acquiring data for a project. On the other side, there are some labs that are very interested in developing new collaborations to support their facilities. Until now there hasn’t been a good mechanism to connect labs with new users. The participating labs listed on the EarthScope AGeS program website are open to being approached about new projects, and they list information about their analytical rates, sample preparation, and lab visits—this is critical for geoscientists planning budgets.  Although it was a simple step, I think that merely compiling this information and making it available was an important contribution because it has helped facilitate communication between the broader user community and labs. The AGeS program also provides funds to support the acquisition of seed geochronologic data though the lab visits, which allows the students to be trained and provides results that can be used for broader projects.

We have funds to run our second proposal cycle this year, and we are looking at strategies to continue the program in 2017. We have a lot of momentum.

The students are clearly fulfilling the hopes of the program. At Princeton, Kinney says, “My EarthScope project gave me the opportunity to talk about new ideas that fostered a new project. I’ve started a collaboration on something completely different.”For her part, Fredrickson enjoyed learning a new technique. “I got to use liquid nitrogen, and work in darkroom conditions with amber lighting. It was really cool,” she says. As a result of this experience, she adds, “I could foresee working in a lab in the future.”

Visit our online Geochronology pages for more information and to apply. The initiative is a collaboration between Rebecca Flowers (CU-Boulder), Ramon Arrowsmith (ASU), James Metcalf (CU-Boulder), Blair Schoene (Princeton), and Tammy Rittenour (USU).

Top picture: Graduate student Sean Kinney, 2015, AGeS recipient, reducing data at the Princeton University Radiogenic Isotopes Laboratory.