State-of-the-Art Geochemistry Lab Serves Students, Faculty and Visiting Scientists

Posted July 10th, 2014 at 4:37 pm.

Clair Johnson '16 and Shakhari Badgett '17 at work in the geochemistry lab

Claire Johnson ’16 and Shakhari Badgett ’17 at work in the geochemistry lab

When Carie M. Frantz wanted to study the chemical makeup of stromatolites from Wyoming to better understand the environment of the area during the warmest period of the Cenozoic Era, she knew she’d have to conduct her research in a lab with state-of-the art equipment, specifically an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS).

Frantz, who was a  Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California in 2012 when she conducted the research, could have gone to UC Riverside, UCLA, or Caltech to use their ICP-MSs but she had heard that Bryn Mawr had a newly-built Geochemistry Lab Suite with an ICP-MS, a microsampler, microbalance, and microscopes all in one place, which allows for the efficient production of the type of high-resolution data she was looking to generate.

Bryn Mawr’s lab proved to be ideal for Frantz’s work. She earned her doctorate and the results of her research were recently published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, with an abstract posted on Science Direct.

“The geochemical measurements that I did at Bryn Mawr were the backbone of this project, and one of the most important components of my Ph.D. thesis in general,” says Frantz. “I initially tried to get my work done closer to home, but was struggling with getting good results. When I talked to [Assistant Professor] Pedro Marenco at a geology conference and heard about his lab, I knew that was where I needed to go to get the measurements I needed.

Pedro’s lab is ideally set up for doing the fine-scale geochemical measurements that made this study so unique: from the camera-equipped microdrill that I used to collect the material for the chemical measurements, to his static-free microbalance that helped me reduce error in my measurements, the meticulously clean workspaces that allowed me to minimize trace element contamination, the ICP-MS itself, and Pedro’s expertise in carbonate geochemistry. I was finally able to get good and reproducible data that allowed me to tease out an exciting environmental story recorded in the stromatolites.

I also really enjoyed interacting with the students and faculty at Bryn Mawr whose insightful questions made me re-think how I interpreted my results and whose warmth and friendliness made the visit a wonderful one.”

Located on the third floor of the Park Science Building, Bryn Mawr’s Geochemistry Lab Suite brings the latest technology to students and faculty as they work to unlock answers to everything from climate change to the Earth’s most severe known extinction event.

In addition to the ICP-MS, the lab features an ELTRA CS2000 carbon/sulfur determinator, which combusts powdered samples at high temperature to measure carbon and sulfur content levels; and a Carpenter Microsystem CM-2 microsampler for high-resolution sampling of minerals in hand samples and thin sections.

Marenco and his wife, fellow faculty member Katherine Marenco, are now working in the lab with students Claire Johnson ’16 and Shakhari Badgett ’18. The group recently returned from field work in Utah, where the Marencos continued their research on early Paleozoic reefs. Since it became fully operational in 2011, a number of undergraduates have used the equipment in the Geochemistry Lab Suite for senior thesis projects that have led to important publications.

“It is important to me that Bryn Mawr continues to be known as a resource for geologic research in the Philadelphia area.  We are one of only a few Geology departments in the region, and as such we frequently host visiting scholars.  For example, in addition to collaboration with Carie Frantz, we have been working with a group of environmental scientists from Villanova University who have been generating data using our ICP-MS,” says Marenco.

Bryn Mawr’s Geology Department combines physics and biology, chemistry and math in the interdisciplinary study of the Earth and the environment. Emphasis is placed on the importance of field work in learning to understand and manage our physical environment. The department’s faculty members and several affiliates teach courses and conduct research in areas that include invertebrate paleontology, sedimentology, mineralogy and petrology, structural geology, tectonics, and geophysics.

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