Following Mom's advice: sabbatical leave adventures Down Under

Nancy Van Wagoner 

I feel fortunate to have a job I love so much. I remember when I became seriously interested in geology, some­where around the 3rd year of university. This was such an exciting time. Earth was discovering the Moon, and with the Apollo 17 mission, Harrison Schmitt, a geologist, became the first scientist to set foot on the moon. Plate tectonics was just becoming accepted, and I was amazed by how rapidly our understanding of Earth was changing. With one of my profs, we were studying currents in submarine canyons and tracing the offshore extent of previously unmapped submarine faults. My friends and I were just a bunch of young students, barely out of text books, and we spent the summer aboard research vessels, discovering new things. If that wasn't exciting enough, as the weather began to turn cool, we all got on a plane and flew to Hawaii-the big Island. The volcano, Mauna Ulu, was an almost as young as we were, and I'll never forget standing on the rim of the crater and watching that volcano erupt while the incandescent basalt beneath my feet melted the Vibram soles of my hiking boots. I remember unpacking my samples of glistening black volcanic bombs, and bags of sparkling green olivine sand, and saying to my mom, "I think I want to be a geologist, and maybe study volcanoes, but I don't know if I should pursue this crazy idea." Mom replied, "Know your passions, and follow them, and don't worry too much about the rest." You know what? Mom was right.

I don't know if the pace of discovery has slowed down, if I've become more accustomed to it, or if I simply perceive it differently now than I did as a student, but I have always treasured the opportunity to discover new things about Earth, and as a professor, to share that discovery with students and colleagues. So, that brings me to the story about what I did during my sabbatical.

            It started in the summer 2001. Some of you will remember my good friend and colleague, the Aussie, Kelsie Dadd. She was my postdoctoral associate at Acadia from 1988-90. Kelsie is now a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, but returned to Acadia for her sabbatical to continue our work on the Coastal Volcanic Belt of Maine and New Brunswick. We spent much of the summer and fall smashing up rhyolite flows looking for zircons for U-Pb isotopic dating, and expand­ing our field area from New Brunswick into the presumed equivalent rocks of the Eastport formation of Maine.

During one of our breaks from fieldwork we were sitting in my office at Acadia arguing about how to interpret one of the rock units in Maine, when Kelsie decided to give up on the argument and log on to the Sydney Morning News. She was always keeping up with events back home and I didn't pay much attention, except this time she looked up from her computer and said, "Someone has flown a plane into the World Trade Centre in New York." The news was sketchy, and the internet became sluggish as the university community and the world frantically tried to access information, but we quickly pieced together the story and were stunned, and saddened by the day's events. Somehow, our work seemed trivial in the face of this tragic event, and not much geology was done on September 11th.  Crossing the border into Maine became more interesting after that. Try explaining to a border guard why you have detailed aerial photographs of coastal Maine in the back of your car.

Despite delays at the border, our work progressed well. In September we led a field trip for the New England Intercollegiate Geological Conference. We had a fantastic group of inquisitive geologists including students, faculty members, and consultants. Before Kelsie returned to Sydney, we had a rough draft of a paper on the mafic volcanism of the Eastport, rocks ready to pulverize for geochemical studies, and zircon crystals were being separated from the rhyolite flows.

As soon as the first flake of snow fell, I headed for the Mojave National Preserve in southern California, to investigate the Cima volcanic field, and a place called, "Hole in the Wall," where volcanism ranges in age from about 18 million years to 10,000 years old, and includes most varieties from explosive ignimbrites, to pahoehoe basalt flows. The Mojave National Preserve is a relatively new park, established in 1994 through the California Desert Protection Act. The park encompasses 1.6 million acres of some of the most spectacular desert in the world. The Mojave is a potential new field area and this was a bit of a reconnaissance trip, and an opportunity to speak with some of the scientific staff of the National Part Service about the possibility of working in the park.

            I missed winter in Nova Scotia. In January 2002, I joined Macquarie University, as an honorary research associate, and spent the winter "down under." I worked with the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS), and with Australian Research Council's Key Centre for the Geochemical Evolution and Metallogeny of Continents (GEMOC). Everyone at Macquarie was very welcoming to me. I had a lovely office, great access to online journals, the laboratory facilities of GEMOC, and a new set of great colleagues including Sue Riley and Bill Griffin, the Director and Program Manager, respectively, of GEMOC, Richard Flood, volcanologist and Head of EPS, Trevor Green, a well-known experimental petro­logist with GEMOC and EPS, and PhD student, Bill Powell. While there we completed the isotopic age deter­minations and geochemistry of the Eastport rocks, and also spent time considering the implications of the Nd-isotopic systematics of some rocks of the Trans-Hudson orogen on the nature of the Paleoproterozoic mantle.

            When I wasn't working on geology, I was busy doing work on problem-based learning and online learn­ing. Kelsie and her colleagues have a project to develop problem-based learning for the entire first-year program, and it was a pleasure to work with them and contribute to the online potential.

            While I was in the warmth of the Australian summer, Cliff Stanley's former Masters student, Larry Mireku, was in the cold of the Nova Scotia winter, work­ing for me back at Acadia. Part of his work involved a Pearce element ratio analysis of the rhyolites of the CVB in New Brunswick. This turned out to be an excellent data set to illustrate the technique, and Cliff is now traveling the world showing off this example as the Distinguished Lecturer for the Association of Exploration Geochemists.

            After 3 months in Sydney, it was field trip time again. There are lots of old volcanoes in Queensland. You might find this hard to believe, and may doubt my motives, but it is true that the Great Barrier Reef flanks the Cretaceous Whitsunday volcanics. We actually camped on a volcanic island, of the Whitsunday's and I can tell you, the black flies of the Canadian Shield don't have anything on the sand flies of the Queensland coast. After a few days we all looked like we had some kind of disease. From there we went inland. Beneath the grassy Australian savannah, eucalyptus trees, and wallabies, are volcanic rocks of the Mesozoic Undara volcano of the McBride Volcanic Province. "Undara" is an aboriginal word meaning, "a long way." One of the lava flows from Undara is estimated to extend for about 160 km, and may be the longest single lava flow on Earth. These flood basalts have huge lava tubes that are tourist attractions. While there were also introduced to Cain toads, a lethal snake well-named the Death Adder, and we had the cutest little rat-kangaroo visit our camp site every evening. The little marsupial was obviously begging for food, but we know better than to habituate the wild-life to humans.

By late May I was back in Canada, but not for long. After a brief stop in Calgary to present a workshop about online problem-based learning at the annual meet­ing of the Canadian Association of Distance Education, I returned to Australia. I did some work with Institute of Early Childhood Education at Macquarie University for a distance-learning project they are getting started. From there Kelsie and I flew to Wellington, New Zealand for a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, where we presented a paper on megapeperites to a skeptical, but receptive audience, and I co-chaired a session on, Magmatic Record of Tectonic Evolution: Antarctica and Beyond. I think I was the "beyond" part.

            Continuing and Distance Education (my other job) was always on the radar screen. I returned to Nova Scotia in time to work on finishing negotiations for a collective agreement, and join colleagues in Chile for the annual executive meeting of the Inter-American Distance Education Consortium, for which I am Vice President for English-Speaking Canada. As the summer ended I re-assumed my dual role as Professor of Geology, and Director of Continuing and Distance Education.

            It is a unique view that we have from geology. Where most people see scenery, we look beyond the sur­face, and beyond what is now, to millions of years into the past. At the same time we are observant and strive to understand modern processes and systems, and extrapolate beyond that into the future. An environmental science student wanted to do an honours thesis with me, but was questioned about whether this work was really environ­mental science, or just geology. There really isn't much more environmental than the way the geologist perceives Earth, and therefore be a steward of it. There is a feeling of intimacy and appreciation with a place we have studied, along with a sense of discovery and understand­ing, and for a moment, a mistaken feeling of order and clarity.

            I had a wonderful and productive sabbatical-I saw new geology, made new friends, gave lots of presentations, wrote papers, and discovered some interesting things about Earth. It was a great year, and a reminder of how much I love my work, and how fortunate I was to follow my mom's advice.

Nancy, Kieran and Lee on the Australian coast.