Geosciences master’s student wins Marie Morisawa Award from geological society

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Joanmarie Del Vecchio’s head has been buried in the sand – and the other sedimentary layers underground near Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center.

The Penn State master’s student has spent the last year thinking about layers of rock and sand under the surface, and studying what the sediments reveal about changing climates in the deep past.

Del Vecchio was recently recognized for her work by the Geological Society of America (GSA) with the 2016 Marie Morisawa Award. The prize, named for the pioneering scientist, is given annually to a promising female graduate student pursuing a career in geomorphology.

The award was presented at the GSA annual meeting Sept. 26 in Denver. The conference also gave Del Vecchio a chance to gain valuable experience by presenting her research.

“When I get the chance, I tell people about my project,” she said. “But this was a chance to tell 200 people at once. Plenty of people came up later to give me their thoughts or ask questions. It was so incredibly valuable.”

With her advisor, Roman DiBiase, assistant professor of geosciences at Penn State, Del Vecchio is studying how shifts to colder climates helped shape the landscape in central Pennsylvania and impacted things like erosion rates and sediment transport down hills and into valleys.

Del Vecchio is using a drilling core sample taken from the bottom of one of those valleys to study whether sedimentary layers might capture multiple glacial cycles deep into the past. It would be a valuable resource for scientists looking to study past cycles of climate change.

She submitted a proposal to GSA and received funding to measure samples from the core for certain isotopes that can show how long each layer of sand and rock has been underground.

“Quite frankly, we don’t have a really good idea about [burial age],” she said. “They could date since the end of the Last Glacial Maximum just 10,000 years ago. Or they could be hundreds of thousands of years old.”

Del Vecchio said she had a “eureka moment” while the core was being discussed in a class taught by Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Institute at Penn State.

The core had been drilled for an unrelated project in Penn State’s Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) in the woods near Shaver’s Creek. Thanks to the class, Del Vecchio saw how she could use the sample in her work.

“My understanding of the drill record was that it was just a jumble of sand and rocks,” Del Vecchio said. “But as we were discussing it, I found there was actually a discrete sand layer, a rocky layer and then more sand. That told me, ‘gee, there’s something different happening in the bottom, middle and top.’”

Del Vecchio had already been working in the CZO the last two summers, exhaustively mapping its surface features and using tools like light detection and ranging and geophysics to study the surface and shallow subsurface. The core will provide another line of evidence for her research. 

The Penn State CZO is one in a network funded by the National Science Foundation that links cross-disciplinary researchers across the country in the study of how rock, soil, water, air and living organisms interact and shape the Earth’s surface. Brantley is principal investigator of the Penn State site.

In addition to DiBiase, Del Vecchio has collaborated with researchers at the University of Vermont, Dickinson College and Indiana University of Pennsylvania on her project. 

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Last Updated October 28, 2016