Recently, mechanical engineering student Ian Horvath got the experience of a lifetime. Ian has been conducting research under his mentor Dr. Jay Oswald titled, “Collection of surficial deposits of metamicit zircons for uranium isotopic analysis for improved age determination,” but without real samples his research would have hit a wall. So Ian took a trip to the Petrified National Forest in northeastern Arizona. While there, he was able to do much more than collect samples. Ian gave us the details of his unique trip.
What was the purpose of your trip?
The purpose of this trip was to collect samples for the Department of the Interior from the Petrified National Forest for analysis of the materials back at ASU. These samples contained high levels of uranium, on the order of around 0.1% by weight. A majority of the uranium concentration is trapped in zircon crystals formed during the late Triassic around 210 million years ago. Since these concentrations are so high, the zircons are not very well suited for age determinations as high levels of uranium causes severe damage to the zircon crystal matrix over the course of hundreds of millions of years. This allows for background Pb contamination interfering with U/Pb lead dating techniques. Being engineers, our aim was to fix this.
What motivated you to go to the Petrified National Forest?
This was a rare opportunity to work with the Department of the Interior on an important project for the National Park Service. Being allowed to come to one of our National Parks to collect samples for scientific study is an honor and privilege.
Tell us about some of the highlights!
The Park’s head paleontologist, Dr. Bill Parker, gave the full tour including a trip to the coveted ‘fossil room’ where all samples go through for cleanup and recording before being sent to various Universities, museums, etc for further scientific study and age determinations.
During my time in the fossil room I was asked if I “…would like to hold a dinosaur?” to which the response was an affirmative YES! In my hands lay a beautifully preserved skull of an ancient crocodile-like (although no relation) phytosaur, an absolute amazing experience that will stay with me forever!
What was the best part of your trip?
It is difficult to say what the best part of the trip was, the fossil room was extraordinary, but also being in the field and collecting samples was simply thrilling!
Has your trip influenced your research plans?
This trip has certainly influenced my research plans. I am now working with our campus geochronology labs on an improved dating technique for badly contaminated zircon crystals. We are also in collaboration with Dr. Alford, who generously donated a much needed vacuum chamber, and the Ion Beam Analysis Facility (IBeAM) to build new tech for greatly improving the accuracy of dating some of the most difficult zircons found today.
Any suggestions for other students regarding research trips?
Yes, go if you have the chance! If you see something interesting and believe it may warrant further study in one of our National Parks then do a literature review and get in contact with the Department of the Interior. If they see you are thorough and you write a solid proposal you may one day find yourself with access to things you would only be able to see through a thick plate glass window in a museum.
Going to a conference? Have research-related travel needs? Apply for the Undergraduate Research Travel Grant!