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New Mexico Tech Scientists Take Center Stage at Global Conference, Sept. 9, 2008

By Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M., Sept. 9, 2008 – New Mexico Tech geoscientists will join colleagues from around the globe at an historic meeting of the minds in October 5 to 9 in Houston. The 2008 Joint Annual Meeting will be one of the biggest conventions ever to focus on Earth Sciences, featuring more than 6,400 talks and more than 10,000 scientists over five days.

Five professional, academic organizations joined ranks to sponsor the event, celebrating the International Year of Planet Earth, which is a joint initiative by UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences.

The International Year of Planet Earth aims to ensure greater and more effective use by society of the knowledge accumulated by the world's 400,000 Earth scientists to build better informed, safer, healthier and wealthier societies around the globe.

The Joint Session Categories encompass the 10 broad, societally relevant and multidisciplinary themes declared by the International Year of Planet Earth: health, climate, groundwater, ocean, soils, deep Earth, megacities, hazards, resources and life.

New Mexico Tech professors, students and researchers will present their work in areas of hydrogeology, microbiology, seismology, remote sensing, geochemistry, tectonics and other related areas.

Geomicrobiology professor Penny Boston will present two papers and is the organizer of the sessions. Several Tech professors are chairing sessions within their specialty.

“All of these societies have their own meetings, they all have long history, but this is the first time that all these societies convene together,” Boston said. “This will bring people together who don’t normally meet. We all have interests that overlap, so it’s an opportunity for people to find colleagues and strike up new collaborations.”

For several Tech researchers, the conference represents their first foray into the professional world. Jaron Andrews is one of four master’s student whose paper was accepted for the conference. He will present his research about engineering a new arsenic filtration system.

“It’s exciting and a little frightening,” Andrews said. “It’s a really good opportunity to see how my work compares to other students around the country and to work from around the nation.”

In short, Andrews is examining a filtration system that uses iron and zeolite, which is a granular mineral compound created from volcanic ash. Along with professor Rob Bowman, Andrews has developed a new method of using iron-zeolite pellets to filter arsenic and other heavy metals out of groundwater.

Hydrology professor Rob Bowman will chair the zeolite session and present his research about how modified zeolites can be used to filter petroleum contaminants from produced water. Bowman will present his findings about how zeolites can absorb pollutants like benzene and toluene, most commonly found in gasoline.

Geoscientist Matt Heizler, of the Bureau of Geology, is presenting his research about how argon migrates through rock formations, as it relates to dating feldspar.

Heizler and Bill McIntosh, also of the Bureau, operate one of only 15 argon labs in the nation. The argon-dating process is fairly straightforward with minerals other than feldspar. The process is much more complicated with feldspar. Heizler will present his recent findings of dating feldspar.

Boston will present her research into a newly-discovered biological phenomenon called “biovermiculations,” which are little-understood patters that appear on cave walls, in desert crusts, and even in higher plants in deserts. These complex patterns appear to be a combination of biological, chemical and physical processes that self-organize in highly structured ways.

"They look like hieroglyphics,” Boston said. “They are very distinctive patterns and we’ve found them all over the world, even in Mayan temples.” Boston and her colleagues are working on developing mathematical models and equations to explain the production of these patterns.

Are there any practical applications? “I am sure there are,” she said. “But this is the most fundamental of fundamental science. We are testing our ability to mathematically model a physical and biological system.”

Boston’s other presentation will focus on her main research over the past two decades – microbiology of high-sulfur environments – from Carlsbad Caverns to Mexico and other locations around the world.

“Sulfur compounds form the basis for the energy system of much of deep-earth microbiology,” she said. “We are trying to understand the history and development of life on this planet. We think that early metabolism might have depended on sulfur for its energy source.”

The second application of Boston’s geomicrobiology research pertains to space missions and extraterrestrial life.

“If we uncover fundamental thermodynamic and chemical mechanics that organisms use on this planet, that can be a model for the energetics of systems on other planets,” she said. “We are applying this to mission analyses for NASA missions for extraterrestrial life detection. Mars is sulfur rich, as are Europa and other icy moons around gas giants.”

Lewis Land, hydrogeologist with the Bureau of Geology’s office in Carlsbad, will present his research on underground water systems related to sinkholes.

Hydrogeologist Sung-Ho Hong and geologist Jan Hendrickx will present their joint research about soil. Hong, a graduate research student, will present his work about satellite-based tracking of evapotransportation and how to perfect the method. Hendrickx, a professor at Tech, will present his research about satellite-based mapping of semi-arid soils. Using advanced math, remote sensing and geology, Hendricks and his colleagues have developed a new method of mapping soil conditions. His research has specific military applications, including detection of buried explosive devices.

Shari Houston, a recent Tech graduate, will present her geochemistry research about “cave pearls.” Houston, a 2008 graduate, will talk about her research about the little-known phenomenon, whereby minerals in caves naturally consolidate to create concrete-like pearls.

Professor Bruce Harrison and graduate student Hugo Gutierrez-Jurado will present their research about how geology and topography relates to hydrology, vegetation and erosion.

“We see dramatic differences in vegetation on opposing hillsides,” Harrison said. “Our studies show that the difference is solar radiation. Our major research is to understand what drives the ecosystem and long-term geological processes in the landscape. Our contention is that the major driver is soil moisture.”

Gutierrez-Jurado is studying the effects of severe storms of 2006 and how the desert landscape responded, specifically an area on the west side of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.

Professor Gary Axen will present two papers about tectonics. He will discuss his research into the mechanics of fault lines and how they slip.

Amy Luther, a graduate student in tectonic geology, will discuss her preliminary findings about fault line movement over the eons and the evolution of fault zones in southern California.

Graduate student Jesus Velador will present his research that examines the age of minerals in a mining district in Zacatecas, Mexico. His research will have a significant effect on the gold and silver mining operations in that mining district.

– NMT –