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A Day in the Life: Franklin Wolfe ’16 Day in the Life, Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner, Data Collection in Spain and Switzerland for 3D Geologic Models

“Navigating foreign landscapes, learning new geologic concepts, gaining practical field experience, exploring new cultures and working with Stephen to overcome daily challenges were unparalleled learning experiences.”

I set out with Stephen Ball ’16 on an amazing journey this summer to gather data for creating 3D geologic models of famous rock outcrops (visible exposure of rock) at the Montserrat Mountain in Spain and the Glarus Thrust in Switzerland, and to understand the cultural diversity of visitors to these locations.

Our journey began at Montserrat Mountain, a serrated, multi-peak mountain near Barcelona that is famous for the majestic Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat, perched a thousand meters above the valley. Each morning started with a breathtakingly beautiful, and equally terrifying, cable car ride from the valley floor to the monastery. A typical day included hiking the monastery’s grounds on pathways that snaked around the side of the mountain, lined with countless religious statues, engravings, and iconographic images. Through our treks, we took over 500 photos of the monastery and the mountain to use back at W&L in developing our 3D geologic models.

We learned from interviews with visitors that people from around the world converge on Montserrat. At the basilica’s entrance, we met a Catholic man from South Korea who had come to pray at the landmark statue of the Virgin Mary of Montserrat and Infant Christ. My most moving experience happened on the last day. As I entered the basilica, a family rushed up behind me, breathing heavily and frantically, and immediately began weeping and praying when they saw the statue. This demonstration of such raw emotion made the importance of Montserrat extremely real for me.

Next we journeyed to Zurich, Switzerland, where we faced an unexpected challenge on our first day. If you have learned to drive a manual transmission vehicle, I am sure you can relate to this experience: Turn the key in the ignition…Press down the clutch…Shift into first gear…Slowly apply pressure to the gas pedal, while releasing pressure from the clutch…Stall out…Start over… Stall out again. However, I bet your experience did not land you in the back of a Swiss police car. After stalling out many times and creating a 10-car traffic jam (including an 18-wheeler) at an inclined intersection, blue lights flashed in our rearview mirror. From the left-side passenger seat, Stephen said exactly what I was thinking: “I knew we shouldn’t have rented the manual.” Thankfully, the two Swiss police officers were not there to arrest us. Instead, they commandeered our vehicle, put us in the back of their police car, drove us to a nearby parking lot, and gave us a 15-minute driving lesson. After this rocky start, and having “mastered” driving our manual car, we traveled the winding Alpine roads to the Glarus Thrust in the eastern Swiss Alps. Here we collected photos to use in developing another 3D geologic model. The biggest challenge we faced at this location was that we were literally “in the clouds” for most of our time near the rock outcrops of interest. We often had to sit in the snow for long periods of time waiting for a clearing so that we could take the shot we needed.

We are currently finalizing our 3D geologic models. Creating a model utilizes a new geospatial technique known as photogrammetry, in which identical features of the rock outcrops are aligned from multiple photos taken at different orientations to develop a 3D image. The model can then be visualized digitally and rotated in any direction or printed using a 3D printer. We hope W&L geology professors might use these scaled-down models of real world rock outcrops as a teaching tool. We are also preparing our cultural booklet with information about each site we visited and our interviews.

My summer research project was an awesome opportunity, and I am extremely grateful for the Johnson Opportunity Grant. Navigating foreign landscapes, learning new geologic concepts, gaining practical field experience, exploring new cultures and working with Stephen to overcome daily challenges were unparalleled learning experiences, and a highlight of my time at W&L.

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Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina

Major: Geology

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • President, American Association of Petroleum Geologists Student Chapter
  • Treasurer, Student Environmental Action League
  • Geology Department tutor
  • Beta Theta Pi Fraternity Alumni Relations Committee member

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • GSA/ExxonMobil Bighorn Basin Field Seminar in Wyoming
  • Keck Geology Consortium research in Nevada
  • Internship with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Mining and Energy Division.
  • W&L Spring Term Study Abroad programs to Córdoba, Argentina (Romance Languages) and New Zealand (Geology)

Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant? This grant provided me the opportunity to integrate my passion for geology with my interests in exploring new cultures and places.

How does your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L? Research through the grant introduced me to photogrammetry, a 3D modeling technique that I am currently using in my geophysics course.

What was the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience? Unexpected bad weather while at over 2,000 meters in the Swiss Alps. We once had to run down the mountain through snow to get back to our car for shelter.


Post-Graduation Plans: I am applying for a Research Fulbright Grant to identify the sources of precipitation and the culture of water use in Ethiopia. I will also be applying for graduate school programs in the geosciences this winter.

Favorite W&L Memory: Tie between pledge class spring break trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama and February break trip to Sun Valley, Idaho.

Favorite Class: Regional Geology of New Zealand Spring Term Abroad

Favorite W&L Event: Space Jam Late Night

Favorite Campus/Lexington Landmark: W&L Colonnade and Cook-Out® Restaurant

Why did you choose W&L? Top-notch academic institution that offered me the opportunity to play collegiate basketball.

Why did you choose your major? Outdoor labs, family-like department environment, and thought-provoking courses that alter the way I view the world.

What professors inspire you? Dr. Jeff Rahl, Dr. Chris Connors, and Dr. Dave Harbor

Advice for prospective or first-year students? Push your boundaries and seek new opportunities.