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Students present research at geology conference

By Alexandra Wertz '12
October 19, 2011

St. Olaf student researchers (from left) Ben Keisling '13, Lauren Snyder '12, and Rebecca Gobel '14 stand before a poster describing the research that they presented at the Geological Society of America's recent annual meeting.

Each year, the Geological Society of America (GSA) hosts a meeting that features some of the best, brightest, and most innovative scientists in the field. And this year the society's annual meeting included a research presentation by three St. Olaf students.

Lauren Snyder '12, Ben Keisling '13, and Rebecca Gobel '14 shared their findings on the evolution of a subglacial lake in Antarctica. In the summer of 2010, Snyder and Keisling were hired as student researchers in the St. Olaf Physics Department to work on a project with Professor of Physics and Environmental Studies Bob Jacobel. The following summer, Gobel joined the research team.

Jacobel had used a National Science Foundation grant to travel with postdoctoral fellow and St. Olaf Instructor in Physics and Environmental Studies Knut Christianson '05 to Antarctica in November 2010 and collect data for the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling Project (WISSARD), a collaboration of a number of universities and institutions seeking to learn more about Subglacial Lake Whillans in Western Antarctica. The goal of the project is to discover how the lake fills and drains into the ocean.

"Jacobel and Christianson used a radar system to see underneath the ice, and it's our job to analyze the data and produce a map of the lake area for use in future WISSARD projects," says Keisling. "Using the radar, we were able to identify a more accurate lake boundary and hypothesize a mechanism for the draining and filling of Lake Whillans." The students worked on a website and also produced maps that will be used by future WISSARD researchers, as drilling of the lake will begin in 2012–13.

Lauren Snyder '12, Rebecca Gobel '14, and Ben Keisling '13 test the ice-penetrating radar that Professor of Physics and Environmental Studies Bob Jacobel uses in Antarctica on a lake near campus.

"I feel honored that we got to show our work to people who know a lot about our field," says Keisling. "I've never taken a course in geophysics, let alone glaciology. I know a bit about ice sheets and glaciers because Bob has given us some crash courses so that we know what we're doing, but I've never presented my work to people who are really versed in glaciology. It was a great opportunity to field questions from experts and have our work challenged."

Snyder, a physics and math major who hopes to go into structural engineering after graduation, believes this experience benefits her no matter what careers she chooses. "This research opportunity has been an incredibly valuable experience. Even though I don't intend to pursue geophysics at a higher level of education, I feel that I'll be able to use everything I've learned in my graduate level studies and future careers."

The GSA meeting, held this year in Minneapolis, had 8,000 attendees, and the St. Olaf students were among just a few undergraduates to present their work. "It is extremely unusual to have undergrads presenting 'real science' at a professional meeting like this. Mostly it's faculty at research universities and their graduate students," says Jacobel. "It has been very rewarding watching these students grow with this project."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or