Peeling Away Layers of Knowledge

  • Evan Anway '13 explains the process he uses to peel away layers of sediment from concretions -- rounded masses of minerals and organic matter -- he uncovered during field research at Little Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

By Bonnie Snyder

What can you learn from the mud that lines a soggy riverbank?

Plenty, if you're Evan Anway '13.

An environmental science major, Anway worked with his academic adviser, Professor of Geosciences Dorothy Merritts, to gather and examine concretions -- rounded masses of minerals and organic matter -- along a stretch of the Little Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County.

The damming of rivers and creeks for mills in Pennsylvania centuries ago has led to a buildup of sediment along valley bottoms. Sediment is composed of loose particles of sand, silt and clay. Too much sediment can cloud waterways, harming underwater grasses, fish and other organisms. This sediment buried the older concretions.

Anway is trying to reconstruct the environmental conditions that existed before the damming occurred -- data that could inform future efforts to restore the valley bottom landscape.

"Evan had an unusually challenging project in that his site has a feature -- these concretions -- that we don't see anywhere else," Merritts said. "We don’t know what this feature is telling us. It's rare."

Because concretions are uncommon in streams and typically occur in clear, shallow, slightly turbid water, the pair's discovery implies a significant environmental change likely happened at the site. Anway set out to analyze the composition of these concretions and attempt to date them. "Because they're in layers, you can use information from each layer to reconstruct what the environment used to look like," he said.

  • Professor of Geosciences Dorothy Merritts (Photo by Eric Forberger)

Anway received some unexpected help in his endeavor from Justin Ries '98, who took an interest in Anway's studies when they met at the spring 2012 Research Fair. Ries, who was an art and geosciences major at F&M and now works at the Marine Sciences Laboratory at the University of North Carolina, offered Anway, Merritts, and Dr. Robert Walter ’75, F&M associate professor of geosciences) access to highly specialized equipment to help Anway analyze his data.

"So far, we've determined that it is likely that the area I'm studying was once a semi-permanently flooded wetland," said Anway, whose research was funded by a Marshall Fellowship and grants Walter received from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Data gleaned from using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry -- a highly precise means of detecting the presence of low concentrations of metals and non-metals -- will provide Anway with an way to determine how environmental conditions changed as the concretions formed.

Merritts was impressed by Anway's willingness to tackle a daunting research project.

"Evan had to go into the project with a lot of curiosity, because there isn't a lot of literature on these concretions in fluvial environments," she said. "It's been difficult to tackle all the different aspects of this complex project, but he has been resilient, buoyant and upbeat. He’s been optimistic and adaptable as we proceeded, because we didn't know what we were going to find and what would be worth pursuing."

Anway is considering graduate school in environmental science. "Being able to add to the pool of knowledge that we have is really appealing to me," he said. "I've already had tremendous opportunities for research at Franklin & Marshall. Professor Merritts was always very encouraging. That was exactly what I needed."

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