Exploring Earth Science
Junior physics major Garth Ornelas has been selected to participate in a unique research and mentoring program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
The program is called Research Experiences in Solid Earth Science for Students, or RESESS, and it is designed to increase the number of historically underrepresented students entering the geosciences.
Ornelas was one of 11 students selected to participate in the program in summer 2013 and will be participating again in the summer of 2014.
Students who are selected for the program spend 11 weeks conducting independent, original research projects under the guidance of a research mentor. Ornelas spent the summer of 2013 working with John McCartney, an associate professor of geotechnical engineering and geomechanics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
His research project involved using a large centrifuge to study the hydraulic properties of an unsaturated silt layer. The hydraulic properties of unsaturated silt are used in soil-atmosphere interaction models that take into account the role of infiltration and evaporation of water from soils due to atmospheric interaction. Such models are often applied in slope stability analyses, landfill cover design, aquifer recharge analyses and agricultural engineering.
The sediment Ornelas used for his research project came from the Bonny Reservoir in Colorado, which was created in 1951 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built a dam on the South Fork of the Republican River. The reservoir was drained in 2011 because of a 2003 court decision which said that Colorado owed the state of Kansas billions of gallons of water under a decades-old water-rights deal called the Republican River Compact.
The project Ornelas did is detailed on the RESESS website and was featured on a 2014 calendar published by the program.
The RESESS program provides funds for participants to present their research at a scientific conference, and Ornelas presented a poster based on his research at the December 2013 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
His mentor for summer 2014 will be Matthew Pritchard, an associate professor of geophysics at Cornell University. Pritchard plans to have him work on some projects related to glacier change in Russia, such as monitoring glacier velocities and elevation change. This will be done by using different types of satellite images.
Ornelas said he has been interested in geology since he was very young. “My mother is a geophysicist and when our family went on camping trips we enjoyed looking for fossils and other interesting stones together,” he said. “My rock collection quickly grew as did my interest in the Earth.”
Ornelas said he discovered the RESESS program on the National Science Foundation’s Pathways to Sciences website. His application detailed how he would like to help other underrepresented students as part of his career.
After he graduates from Southwestern, Ornelas said he plans to go to graduate school for either geophysics or engineering.