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F&M Student Studies The Desert to Understand Mars

  • ryan samuels
  • Franklin & Marshall College senior Ryan Samuels  studied geological characteristics of volcanoes in New Mexico to better understand volcanic formations on Mars.(Photo by Melissa Hess)

In summer 2013 Franklin & Marshall College senior Ryan Samuels trekked to the American Southwest, where he spent a month studying geological characteristics of volcanoes in New Mexico. His goal was to use the knowledge gained in the desert to better understand volcanic formations on Mars.

Supported by a Keck Geology Consortium research grant, the geosciences major is researching Martian shield volcanoes and the channels etched into their surface. Unlike cone-shaped mountainous volcanoes such as Washington's Mount St. Helens, shield volcanoes are mostly made of lava flows and are large but low in profile, akin to a warrior's shield lying on the ground. Samuels has been trying to determine the differences between lava-formed and water-formed channels.

Using a variety of data sets, including data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), an instrument on the Mars Global Surveyor that has mapped the planet, Samuels compared a channel in New Mexico's Twin Craters lava flow in the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field with one on Ascraeus Mons, the tallest of three Martian shield volcanoes that collectively are known as Tharsis Montes.

"What we've concluded is that it's most likely volcanic in origin," Samuels said of the Martian volcano channel. "Determining what made the channel and tube flow features in Tharsis Montes could help us interpret the other flows on Mars that have been misinterpreted or wrongly designated."

The research has Earth-bound applications, too. Helping scientists understand how lava flows from a volcano could help determine how to alert and move populations near volcanoes, Samuels said.

"We're trying to understand these flow processes for here on Earth so we can better understand where to evacuate people when needed," Samuels said.

Samuels is working with Associate Professor of Geosciences Andrew de Wet, who said the project relates to larger research into Martian volcanoes that de Wet is working on with 2000 F&M graduate Jacob Bleacher, a NASA researcher who co-wrote a 2013 article on Martian super volcanoes, published in Nature magazine.

"It's a small piece of research to help in the interpretation of the water and volcanic history of Mars," de Wet said. "We're a small cog in a big wheel."

Samuels presented a paper on his findings at the Northeastern Section of the Geological Society of America regional conference in Lancaster in late March. In fall 2013 he presented a poster on the same topic at the American Geophysical Union's fall San Francisco meeting.

Geology was not on Samuels' radar when he first arrived at F&M, but in the second semester of his first year, he enrolled in a geoscience course on the dynamics of Earth, taught by Dr. Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences Stanley Mertzman. The professor and the course lit a spark in Samuels.

"I thought it was one of the greatest classes," Samuels said. "It was really difficult, but Professor Mertzman wrote on my final exam that I should be a geologist."

Mertzman characterized F&M geosciences majors as hardworking and diligent.

"Ryan is just typical of that," he said. "He's a wonderful kid and he really applies himself. He will wrestle with various concepts until he gets them down. He will not give up, which I really admire."

Samuels said science runs in his family. His mother is an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., and his father is a computer engineer.

As he decides on a graduate school, Samuels plans to pursue sedimentology, a field of geoscience that examines fluvial, or the motion of sediment and erosion, and beach systems. It applies to issues ranging from climate change to exploration and extraction of oil and gas.

"I feel there's a lot that we over look that's right beneath our feet," Samuels said. "Rocks can tell us a lot, not just about our past, but the future of things to come."