At the core of it
Determined to maximize every cubic centimeter of scientific opportunity presented by the Turkana Basin, Assistant Professor of Geosciences Catherine Beck scored a grant to assemble an interdisciplinary team of scholars to conduct research there. The team’s task is to craft a drilling project to study the impact of changing climate and environment on hominins who have lived millions of years in this region of northern Kenya.
The scientists expect to be on campus in April for a workshop, Drilling Deeper for Connections between Environmental Change and Evolution, to create a proposal for the “coring” endeavor. Funding comes from EarthRates, a National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network.
We need to work together to synthesize all these valuable components of the puzzle of how we came to be the species we are.
“The goal is to get paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, paleoecologists, and geologists in a room together to start talking about how to use the geologic record of the Turkana Basin — a world-famous hominin fossil locality. One of the best ways to take advantage of our collective expertise is to answer big questions,” Beck explains.
Working as individuals, she says, scientists tend to focus on discipline-specific details, but together they can look more broadly. For instance, has the environment shaped our evolution as a species, and if so, how? “We need to work together to synthesize all these valuable components of the puzzle of how we came to be the species we are,” Beck says. Following the workshop, the team will seek funding for research to complement that already done in the area and leverage 2013 drill-core work by the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project, with which Beck has participated.
Beck, who joined the Hamilton faculty in 2015, says the proposal will be unique in that it will analyze core sediments obtained by drilling deep into the earth; most of the work done in the area to date has been the study of outcrops on the earth’s surface. The cross-disciplinary team would use the cores in a wide range of ways, from examining fossils seen with the naked eye to analyzing in the lab diatoms, pollen, and other plant remains, and the chemistry of tiny shards of glass that help date climate changes.
“This area is excellent for understanding the past because it has periodic volcanic eruptions. Each has a signature almost like a fingerprint — a geochemical signature recorded in the ash deposits,” Beck says. They can use that information in relationship to the outcrops to track landscape changes around the basin going back millions of years.
When Beck came of age professionally working with the Hominin Sites Project, she noticed that few women were heading up its sites. Another goal of the project is for women to have prominent roles in the research. The group also includes a Kenyan scientist, senior scientists, and graduate students. She included older, established academics so the new generation of professors, including herself, can learn from them. That was the idea, too, for including graduate students. “I gained so much from making my transition from a graduate student to a professor by being involved in this, and I hope that I can pay some of that forward,” Beck says.
She anticipates that Hamilton geoscience students may have a role in the new venture, starting with the workshop, when she plans to have students meet and talk with the scientists. In the summer of 2016, two students, Mary Langworthy ’17 and Mary Margaret Allen ’17, traveled to Turkana with Beck to do research, work that became the basis of their senior theses.
— Maureen A. Nolan