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Spotlight on Laurel Childress: Biogeochemist and Aikido practitioner

Modified: February 2, 2016
Laurel Childress in the lab

Laurel Childress knew she was interested in geology from a young age, however, her early notions of becoming a volcanologist changed dramatically during college. An undergraduate course at North Carolina State University on marine sediment transport helped her discover that she could combine her interests in the oceans and geology to forge a unique path through research. “I was always interested in oceanography: I grew up on the east coast. I realized I could pair my love of oceanography with my love of geology and become more of a marine geologist. I also was interested in chemistry, and discovered this could be combined with my other academic interests.”

Laurel’s undergraduate advisor encouraged her to pursue graduate study at Northwestern. As a North Carolina native, the cold was initially a big change. “I’ve been here since 2009, so I’ve almost adjusted by now.”

Today, Laurel is a biogeochemist and a PhD Candidate in Earth and Planetary Sciences. She works in two research labs; one is run by her advisor, Neal Blair, a biogeochemist, and the other is run by Steve Jacobsen, a mineral physicist.

“My research focuses on organic carbon on active margins, where a continental plate meets an oceanic plate,” Laurel says. “Active margins are characterized by high sediment transport rates and a close proximity between terrestrial sediment source and marine burial. These factors allow active margins to be particularly effective in the burial of organic carbon, resulting in high fidelity records of the terrestrial and marine environment spanning millions of years.”

Studying the differences over time in exported organic carbon from terrestrial environments can give insight into past storm frequency, sea level, precipitation regimes, vegetation type, erosion rate and tectonic uplift. This is one of the first studies that focuses on fossil carbon in the deep marine environment, and will provide a baseline of information for future paleoenvironmental studies and global carbon budgets.

After arriving at Northwestern, Laurel also began working in Professor Steve Jacobsen’s lab, starting a new vein of her research in high pressure-high temperature experiments. The carbon that is present in rock sources was more persistent and moved far enough off-shore to be involved in the subduction process, which occurs when a continental plate meets an oceanic plate and sinks into the Earth’s mantle.

“Steve and I were talking about organic carbon and we thought, ‘what if we take some of that carbon and do a simulated subduction experiment?’ So we applied heat and pressure and simulated subduction of a fossil carbon sample in order to see what transformations happen to this material as it enters a much larger geological context – is it volatizing quickly, becoming a gas product and remaining near the surface or is it transported deeper to become part of a million-year cycle?”

Her favorite part of her research is the fieldwork, which takes her to beautiful places around the world, like New Zealand, Alaska, and Cascadia. “Active margins happen to be in really beautiful places with active mountain building. Getting to travel to those places and getting to explore them in great detail is very cool.”

The work itself consists of source-to-sink studies. The “source” is the terrestrial environment, from which Laurel collects rock samples, soil profiles and river water samples. The “sink” portion takes place on a ship, where she will spend anywhere from a week to two months coring and examining marine sediment.

When she is not in the lab, Laurel is an active member of the Northwestern Aikido Club, which is a Japanese form of self-defense and martial arts.

“You get to put a lot of yourself physically out there and work out stress,” Laurel explains. “It’s a martial art that is not based on attack. It is more based on taking someone else’s energy and redirecting it. The mindset of it is pretty good after a long day.”

Laurel is in her sixth year at Northwestern and is currently looking for a postdoctoral position. She hopes to stay in academia and to find a balance between research and teaching in the future.