Rocks and Rodents

Geological sciences research ranges far beyond the predictable
Logan Wetherell

Yes, geology does rock. Most of the time.

But one can, in fact, be in geology and not study what most of us usually think of as rocks. Some study fossils or soil or the myriad things that happen when rocks get eroded or uplifted or shot out of a volcano. In fact, you’d be surprised at the number of career options for someone in this field.

In other words, geology isn’t just rocks. Two University of Oregon undergraduates illustrate the point. One is a hardcore rock guy (who is actually studying lichens), the other mines rock only to get at fossils (which actually are rocks, but most used to be bones).

Both of these students show how far the geological sciences can take you, and how divergent research options are for UO undergrads interested in rocks or the stories they tell. Climb them, study them or sift them, it’s another day in the lab for a geologist in training.

Lots of lichens

Logan Wetherell (above) climbs rocks for fun, but he wants to study them for a living.

Wetherell reached the first step of that goal last spring, when he graduated from the UO with a degree in geology. He hopes to add a master’s degree to his credentials before he ascends to a career as a teacher at a community college, with a little research and writing on the side.

It was the climbing that first got him, though. Wetherell took a class on rock climbing at Umpqua Community College, loved it and soon was signed up for geology classes as well.

“When you’re climbing, you spend a lot of time staring at rocks close up,” he said. “It sucked me right in.”

After completing two years at Umpqua, Wetherell transferred to the UO bent on a geology degree. And like many undergraduates, he wanted to bolster his chances for grad school by doing an undergraduate research project.

Of course, the project was focused on rocks. But what Wetherell wanted to know wasn’t how they were made but how they are unmade.

You could say that rocks are just soil waiting to happen, and Wetherell aimed to help scientists better understand how long it takes for that process to begin. That sometimes meant taking to his ropes to measure, of all things, lichen.

There’s even a word for it: lichenometry. Lichens often are the first living organisms to colonize freshly exposed rock, and Wetherell wanted to figure out how long it took them to do that, which meant measuring a lot of lichen.

“I never thought I’d be looking at lichen over and over,” Wetherell said.

But being an outdoorsy sort of guy, Wetherell liked the fieldwork. He concentrated on a stretch of Highway 101 between Yachats and Sea Lion Caves, using state and county records to find out when roads and rock walls were first built and thus when the rocks were first exposed.

Knowing that allowed him to date the lichens, and measuring them gave him an idea of their growth rate. He measured it at about three-thousandths of a millimeter per year, and estimated that the first lichens would start growing about five years after the rock is first exposed. He then estimated it takes another twenty years before it really kicked off the mineral breakdown that is the first step in soil formation.

Wetherell presented his research findings at the 2014 Undergraduate Symposium, a showcase for undergraduate research.

UO geology professor Josh Roering said Wetherell took on the research with a kind of energy he came to appreciate as one of his student’s defining qualities.

“He really attacked lichens,” Roering said. “You love to see the light turned on, even if it’s shining in some really odd places.”

It May Sound Squirrelly

When UO undergraduate Eva Biedron (right) approached paleontology associateEva Biedron professor Samantha Hopkins looking for an idea for a research paper, Hopkins had one word for her:


Welcome to geology, where conventional rocks aren’t always the star of the show. Biedron discovered this when she decided to add a double major in geology with an emphasis on paleontology—a subfield—to go along with her major in biology, where she’s focusing on ecology and evolution.

Biedron was a bit of a latecomer to geology. Her original plan was to get a degree in biology and then move on to a medical career, possibly as a doctor. But she changed her mind after a summer study program at a medical clinic in Panama.

“That’s when I realized that perhaps the medical profession wasn’t for me,” Biedron said with a smile.

But she had always been interested in evolution, and after talking with others about how to pursue that interest, she ended up in Hopkins’ office. The result was a new interest in research, and she started volunteering in Hopkins’ lab, doing small but necessary chores like carefully extracting very tiny fossilized bones hidden in chunks of coarse sediments.

“I really, really liked it there,” Biedron said. “The lab atmosphere really caught me. I felt like I fit right in.”

It wasn’t much later that she had her fateful talk with Hopkins, which set her on an unexpected research course involving our furry friends with a penchant for hiding acorns. Hopkins wanted Biedron to reconcile two different family trees for squirrels, one based on their genetics and the other on the way they looked, also known as morphology.

The idea was to blend the two and come up with a clearer picture of how squirrels developed. The project has given Biedron a chance to dive into both the library and the physical world of squirrel bones, where she hopes to do some computer modeling to help understand how different species of squirrels are related and how they evolved.

It’s a complex problem, but that only makes it all the more attractive to Biedron. To her, science is a puzzle she just can’t resist.

“It’s a problem that needs to be solved, and I want to figure it out,” she said.

“It gives me even more of a reason to go to class. It’s a chance to show that, yes, I’ve learned something and I can put it to use.”

A student in the Robert D. Clark Honors College, Biedron has been interested in science ever since taking a seventh-grade biology class. She’s taking on the paleontology research for her honors thesis project.

In addition to her double major at the UO, Biedron also is involved in the Science Literacy Program, helping teach science to nonscience majors. She doesn’t even pause when asked if she plans to go on to graduate school—it’s a doctoral degree or bust. She hopes one day her own research might kindle in other students the same love of research she found at the UO.

“If I can just spark a little bit of that love of discovery in them, wow, that would be inspiring,” Biedron said.

Greg Bolt
Photos: Logan Wetherell (credit: Wetherell) and Eva Biedron (Matt Cooper)