Back to the island! Sharing data in paradise

Crawling through traffic on the George Washington Bridge in the Bronx was a lot less stressful last week without the ~5 tons of geological equipment we towed behind our vehicle in June. My advisor’s PhD student, two other undergraduates from our lab, and I rode north last week to join colleagues from an interdisciplinary project. As we drove north we crossed major East Coast rivers and coastal systems including the Potomac River, Susquehanna River, Delaware River, Hudson River, Connecticut River, and the Merrimack River (part of my field site!). Each of these rivers carries varying amounts of sediment either suspended in the water column or carried as bed load. Slowly, but surely, these rivers deposit this sediment at the coastline where it contributes to existing coastal features such as barrier islands, marshes, or tidal flats.

One such barrier island is Plum Island, MA. It’s also the one we stayed on last week for the meeting. About 13km long, Plum Island is particularly stable, as we found out this week from Andy Fallon, my advisor’s masters student. While short-term cycles of erosion exist on the island, it has remained essentially in its current position for many years. This is the result of an immense amount of sand that underlies the entire island, ensuring a healthy supply of sediment. What’s striking, however, is that the Merrimack River, which feeds sediment to the island, lacks a substantial sediment load today. Most of the island’s sediment, then, is thousands of years old, dating back to the most recent glaciation in the region.


The view from the home we stayed in on Plum Island, MA. We are right at the barrier dune with the gently rolling Atlantic Ocean in the background.

This fact was a large portion of our discussion last Monday, where we heard from Claudia Shuman (PhD student at VIMS) about her work looking at sediment cores that cover thousands of years of deposition and barrier island formation and Dr. Liz Canuel (VIMS) who spoke about current river sediment. Additionally I gave a presentation to the group to share some results and receive feedback on what I’ve found. My research is still very much in the data-gathering stages. I do have some data, but it’s important at this part of the journey to get as much feedback, criticism, and suggestion as possible before I begin to communicate my research widely. Preliminarily, these data suggest a similarly small sediment supply as we find today over the last 150 years. This meeting, part of a grant my  advisor is on, proved invaluable in receiving encouraging comments and critiques. The team of researchers is made up of coastal geologists, a geochemist, an historian, and multiple economists. My project, which uses industrial history to answer geological questions and relies on geochemical techniques, was one of many that bridged interdisciplinary gaps.

In addition to sharing some of my data, I learned about the larger context of the project taking place at Plum Island. Other researchers from the team presented their data too, ranging from the economic value of beach erosion to historic land-use changes in the Merrimack River watershed. Interdisciplinary connections are vital to making research impactful.

A day later, I submitted an abstract to the Geological Society of America annual meeting for 2015. The abstract is for a poster presentation I will give there in November, where I will have a chance to get additional feedback on the results that I present. While the presentation is three months away, the abstract is a form of immediate communication with peers. Its the first widely shared bit of preliminary data and begins to tell the “story” of the research. At the conference itself (or beforehand) its the first impression peers will have of the research.

Communicating ones findings can be extremely intimidating—I did find it intimidating. I also know, however, that its an essential component of research. As my research continues into this school year, I hope to become better at communicating the goals, methods, results, and impacts of my research.