June 11, 2011

A new toy! Can I play?

I like volunteering. You meet compassionate people with similar interests & concerns in an informative setting. However, I live in the realities of a capitalist western country, so the [very] limited free time I have outside of university studies restricts my volunteerism, as it logically is the first thing to get cut during crunch time and the search for funds. Summertime is a bit different: classes are few or nonexistent, daylight is plentiful, and my general mood is happier & more energetic. Consequently, I tend to volunteer with local organizations that have environmental directives, and over the years I've found a few that have programs which are laid out in a simplistic fashion, and thus easy to volunteer portions of my free time for. One in particular I'm on my 4th year with involves canvassing residents of Langley on how to protect their dwindling groundwater supply through conservation and community action (~50% of the townships water supply is provided by unconfined or shallow-confined aquifers).
A sample of vesicular basalt as a control in an experiment. The sample was obtained from Mt. Rainier
In more recent years, with my growing interest in academic research, I've started asking university professors if they or their grad students need any field/lab assistance with their research. Any that have ongoing work always say yes, and when I come in with enthusiasm and interest in reading & discussing their work, they shoot back with an even greater level of enthusiasm. Probably the best aspect of volunteering in labs or the field is not the possibility of paid work, nor the time to pick the brains of current researchers, nor getting my foot in the door. Those are all excellent aspects, but the best has to be the exposure to the precision technology that I get to [cautiously] fiddle with and test out, and see its application towards specific facets of quantified research.

One recent new addition to the university had the petrologist professor quite giddy, and him and I got to play around with the new device for awhile, figuring out all its quirks and functions, and running some initial control tests to ensure proper functionality. The device was something I'd never heard of before, but the explanation of its logic and level of precision made perfect sense. I speak of a Helium-based pycnometer (pictured right).

It is hard to get an accurate measurement of density for vesicular rocks, such as vesicular basalt, pumice, scoria, etc... due to the irregular arrangement of void space in their matrix where gasses exsolved. Helium is a relatively inert gas, so functions better than a nitrogen/oxygen/argon mixture which could be adsorbed by silicic material. Helium is better at diffusing within rock samples of high surface area with the tiniest, micrometer-level pore spaces, ie. vesicular rocks. Thus the displacement of Helium between containers (one with the rocks and one without), and application of the ideal gas law, and we get the volume of the rock sample with deadly accuracy. We tested out the device using some vesicular basalt (pictured above) gathered from pyroclastic flows ejected from Cascade Arc volcanoes. Looking at the basalt petrographically was important as well, so I made thin sections for viewing under the microscope and we viewed the optical mineralogy of the basalt.

Mt Edziza stratovolcano, which has erupted felsic
magmas such as rhyodacite or trachyte/comendite.
Image courtesy Canadian Encyclopedia
The pycnometer is supposed to help the professor's research of the geochemistry of the Edziza volcanic complex within the NCVP. I hope to assist in as much of it until the concluding phases and journal publication, mainly because it allows further access and experience with new physical geography/geology toys. I've also recently got some fresh experience with a 15m long sediment transport flume, but that's another research tale I hope to tell after more time with the flume.

For other undergrads I strongly recommend volunteering your time & energy to your university profs and grad students. Trust me, they are likely to welcome your assistance, and you'll benefit from the experience and the contacts, especially if post-graduate studies is on your radar. It gets your foot in the door, and is thus invaluable.

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