Two St. Lawrence University students swept the awards for best presentations at the 2020 Geological Society of America (GSA) Conference—its first remote meeting in its 125-year history.
Claire Bartlett ’21 won the National Council Award for her “Analysis of Coarse-Woody Debris in Four Adirondack Mountain Catchments: Potential Impacts for Paleoclimate Work,” while Gretchen Wambach ’21 took home the Austin Sartin Award for her “Evaluation of Length and Azimuth Measurement Data Using Eight GIS Basemaps: Topographic Maps are Still the Standard.”
Each student’s presentation consisted of a pre-recorded video overview of their poster followed by a live Q&A and review session.
Associate Professor and Chair of Geology Alexander K. Stewart advised both students during their research, which took place throughout the summer of 2020. Though COVID-19 threw a wrench into the projects each student had originally planned, it didn’t stop them from investigating topics that sparked their curiosity and inspired ingenuity. When students left campus in March, Stewart worked with each student to help them tackle a new approach.
“From March to April to May, there was quite a bit of back and forth and finding what would be COVID-savvy… With this in mind, I was happy to craft projects that they would like to do,” says Stewart. “From inception to GSA award, it was all collaborative.”
Gretchen, who is from Honeoye Falls, N.Y. and applied to St. Lawrence with an intent to pursue geology, received the Clare Booth Luce Fellowship to pursue her research this summer. When she couldn’t be in the field, she honed in on remote data collection. Using an online Geographic Information System (GIS) named ArcGIS online, she collected and compared measurements for glacial drumlins near Rochester, N.Y. to determine which type of map most accurately reports the dimensions of landmasses.
“Dr. Stewart helped me plan and sort out my project, revised my work, and answered my questions or helped me find people who could,” says Gretchen. “I would like to thank him, especially, for being so helpful with switching to a new project idea when my original plan was no longer possible due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Claire’s path to geology was a bit more winding. Ultimately, it was the mesmerizing and versatile landscape she encountered while on a spontaneous trip to Iceland during her sophomore year that inspired her to declare a geology major.
“I had never taken a geology course at SLU despite my meandering in multiple departments, but one of my friends was a geology major and just a few weeks prior was raving about how amazing the department was and how great the professors were,” she says. “It all clicked. I realized I wanted to know and understand the world we live in.”
This summer, Claire, who calls Potsdam, N.Y. home, explored the terrain in St. Lawrence’s own backyard while conducting research made possible by the Mark Erickson Fellowship. She hiked around four different lakes in the Adirondack Park to collect measurements and data from downed trees. By looking at dominant tree types in each location, as well as a chemical analysis of vegetation along the water, she was able to determine similarities and differences between each lake and draw conclusions about how they may have been formed.
Though the pandemic posed challenges to the already intimidating task of undertaking research for the first time, Claire’s support system at St. Lawrence helped her overcome obstacles even while working remotely.
“Dr. Stewart was my main support for this research and for my presentation prep. It was his guidance that enabled me to perform the quality of research that I did. Performing research for the first time alone is a daunting challenge, especially remotely without any in-person explanation of concepts or tools,” says Claire. “[Stewart] was able to walk me through how to collect my data, analyze it statistically, visualize it, and present it formally for the conference.”
Claire’s and Gretchen’s success at the GSA Conference this year follows a long tradition of excellence from St. Lawrence geology students. Stewart believes there are several key contributors to St. Lawrence’s prestige in this arena.
“There is no question, in my mind, it is two things: a focus on traditional, field-based geology trained via real-world research and a keen and unparalleled alum group,” he says. “At the SLU Geology Alumni Conference, students are able to engage with alums in all facets of professional work. I think, too, we tend to treat our students more as graduate students than undergraduates. Our expectations are high, but they always rise to the occasion.”