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Two Grad Students Earn Earth Science Awards

SOCORRO, N.M. September 1, 2009 – Two New Mexico Tech graduate students won prestigious awards from the National Speleological Society this summer.

Aaron Curtis, an incoming geochemistry master’s student, won the James G. Mitchell Award funded by the National Speleological Foundation for his presentation at the 15th International Congress of Speleology in Kerrville, Texas, in late July.

Hydrology doctoral candidate Katrina Koski won the Ralph Stone Award from the National Speleological Society. The Stone Award is a $1,400 fellowship awarded to one graduate student each year, based on their past research and plans for continued research.

Tech doctoral student Katrina Koski at the entrance to Calimmo cave in Tulum, Mexico. Photo by Dr. Tanja Pietraß/New Mexico Tech

Koski’s paper, “Sediment Transport in Phreatic Karst Conduits,” explains her research about particulate matter in karst-based aquifers. “Phreatic” refers to rock that is below the water table.

One part of Koski’s graduate research examines the relationship between sediment size and rate of sediment movement; she is investigating how water-borne sediment transfers between the layers in a karst aquifer. The topic, which is basically internal erosion, is a little studied area that will help explain how karst systems are formed.

“Winning this award is great. I’m in really good company,” Koski said.

Former winners include Dr. George Veni, the director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, a Tech division in Carlsbad, and Dr. Diana Northrup, a University of New Mexico professor who is a frequent collaborator with Tech faculty.

A native of the Detroit area, Koski earned her bachelor’s in physics from Lake Forest College in Illinois and her master’s in physics from New Mexico Tech.

Koski’s winning proposal is a small part of her doctorate research. With advisor Dr. John Wilson, she is examining how water moves through the Floridan Aquifer.

Tech master's student Aaron Curtis poses with a map of the caves he studied for his winning presentation at the International Congress of Speleology in June. Courtesy Photo

For her field work, Koski will scuba dive in underground caves, drill into cave walls with a pneumatic drill, place instruments within cave walls, seal the enclosure, and return months later to retrieve the instruments and data.

“Dr. Wilson is an expert in hyporheic flow in surface streams,” Koski said. “Imagine a stream, where water hits a mound of sand or gravel and flows underground, carrying nutrients, dissolved gasses and heat. Then, the stream returns to the surface. We propose that similar flow occurs around underwater caves in aquifers, introducing nutrients, dissolved gasses and heat into the rock. In order to observe the flow, we need to drill into the cave wall to instrument the rock and observe the cave water moving through the karstic rock.”

Koski is a registered scuba diver and relishes the ability to combine her interest in geophysics with her diving skills.

“It’s going to be awesome,” she said. “We’re unique in that we have amazing hydrological knowledge in our department, but we can also take samples from inside the aquifer and that has rarely been done.”

Curtis’s research will be equally as enterprising. For his master’s degree, he will work with Tech professor Dr. Philip Kyle, studying and mapping ice caves on the Erebus Volcano in Antarctica.

The son of a foreign service employee, Curtis grew up all over the world and graduated from high school in Sweden. While earning his undergraduate degree in geography at the University of Cambridge, he found a passion for caves after joining the student caving club.

The Mitchell Award is given to the student member 25 or younger deemed to have presented the best scientific paper at the annual convention. Papers are evaluated on how well they exemplify sound methods of scientific research and presentation, and secondarily on their contribution to knowledge.

Curtis presented two papers at the conference and he won the award for his paper, “Karst Microclimate Monitoring in the Northern Alps,” which was the topic of his undergraduate thesis.

“I was surprised. I felt very appreciated,” Curtis said. “This research started as my undergraduate dissertation. When I originally turned it in, I got a fairly poor grade. I was able to rethink it and look at the data in a more creative way. I learned that rethinking something can have great benefit.”

For his winning paper, Curtis explained the key components that affect cave climates. He said the most important result of his research was that condensation on cave walls is a crucial factor that reduces heat transfer from exterior climate to cave microclimates. Curtis’s paper will be published in the German journal Die Hoehle this fall.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech