The Columns

Rocking Research in Lexington and Greece Josh Fox ’19 has spent his summer conducting geology research on campus and in Crete, Greece, with Professor Jeff Rahl.

— by on July 5th, 2017

“Professors at W&L expect high-quality work from their students, and working in that environment readied me for the similar expectations set by the scientific community.”

— Josh Fox ’19

Hometown: Marlboro, New Jersey
Major(s): Geology and Anthropology

Q: What are you doing for the summer, and how long is your opportunity?

This summer, I’m working in the geology department for eight weeks—two in Greece and six in Lexington. On campus, I am continuing to work on a project that I got involved in last summer. We are exploring new methods to measure strain and paleostress in rock formations from the local Appalachian Mountains. While our main goal is to prove the efficacy of some of our methods, including the use of small mineral inclusions to measure how intensely the mountains have been altered by tectonic processes, this work may also help us to better understand the tectonic history of the mountain range. It is our hope that this project will help these methods become widely applied to many geologic problems and questions. I am also extremely grateful to be involved in the publication process as we work to finalize a manuscript that incorporates some of my data into the amazing work done by Professor Rahl and his colleagues.

Q: Where in Greece did you work, and what did you like best about that location?

I spent two weeks in Crete, Greece with Professor Rahl and two other students doing field work for several different projects. Not only did our work help Professor Rahl verify some ideas that he has been considering for many years, we also collected nearly 50 samples for two additional projects. While these two projects are not directly relevant to my work in the Appalachians, they are using some of the same methods, and so they have allowed me to apply my knowledge to an entirely new set of questions. Spending time outside in the mountains of Crete was absolutely incredible and unlike anything I’ve done before. The rest of my research this summer is taking place in Lexington and involves previously collected data.

Q: What does an average day for you look like?

It definitely differs from week-to-week and even sometimes from day-to-day. Often, I’ll get into the lab in the morning and simply continue where I left off the previous day, whether that be in an Excel spreadsheet, in the rock-prep room, or in Professor Rahl’s lab. On other days, I will get to work in the IQ Center learning how to operate the scanning electron microscope. Wherever a day takes me, I am always learning something new and trying to reach the goals that we set for this project last summer.

Q: What was the most interesting thing you have learned while working on this project?

The technical experience I’ve gained throughout this process has definitely been my favorite aspect. Over the past two summers, I’ve learned how to prepare rock samples and operate the scanning electron microscope, as well as how to use numerous computer programs. Additionally, earlier this summer I was lucky enough to discover that Crete has some of the most absurdly amazing views and beaches in the world.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Some of our data collection was very tedious, especially early on in the process. I would definitely say that staying focused during some of that early work was difficult, but looking back on how far we’ve come since June of last summer, it is evident that all of the time spent was worth it.

Q: Have you had any mentors during this time?

Professor Rahl— or Jeff, as we call him, since the geology professors prefer to use their first names— has been a mentor of mine since my first semester at W&L. His intro class got me interested in geology, and ever since he has been one of my main resources for picking classes, finding new opportunities and conducting research. Without his teaching and guidance, I certainly would not be where I am today.

Q: Has this experience impacted your studies or future plans in any way?

As a freshman at W&L, I had no idea what I was going to major in or what the future held, but after taking Intro Geology with Professor Rahl, I decided to become a geology major. Two years and two summers of research later, my experiences have helped me narrow my interests and find topics that I would like to pursue further. This work has also helped me to gain a better understanding of the research process from start to (almost) finish. While I’m still not sure of my plans after graduation, I now know that they will involve geology, and that is definitely an improvement from where they were a few years ago.

Q: How did W&L prepare you for this experience?

The small class sizes and hands-on learning offered at W&L, and especially in the geology lab courses, helped to prepare me for my research experience by getting me used to the high-level of work expected on such projects. Professors at W&L expect high-quality work from their students, and working in that environment readied me for the similar expectations set by the scientific community.

Q: Why is this kind of experience important to W&L students?

These type of opportunities are important to W&L students because they are so rare in the world of undergraduate studies. Many other universities reserve legitimate research positions for graduate students, so being able to gain genuine experience in conducting research allows W&L students to have a better understanding of life beyond college. It also enables us to develop our interests and expertise in a unique and awesome way that is largely unavailable to our peers at other institutions.

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