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Reaching New Heights

Student researchers study geologic wonders of the American West to help them protect earth’s resources

Posted in: Homepage News, Research, Science and Technology, University

group of students in Clarks Fork Canyon, Wyoming
At Clarks Fork Canyon in Wyoming, Montclair students in the summer’s Field Geology course measure rock layers in the Bighorn Dolomite, a geologic formation that preserves fossils dating back 460 million years.

After a summer field program studying the geological wonders of the American West, Kerry Murphy, a senior who will graduate in August with a degree in Earth and Environmental Science, says she’s now prepared to dig deeper to better understand the world beneath our feet.

Murphy was among nine Montclair State University students who joined an expedition led by Associate Professor Matthew Gorring in the College of Science and Mathematics’ Field Geology course to study ancient rocks and glaciers for geologic mapping.

“Not only did I get to see some of the most beautiful parts of the country, but I also got to learn about [the Rockies] from a rare and special perspective, a geologic one,” says Murphy. Structural geology, stratigraphy, plate tectonics, geologic mapping and sediment identification – “it’s one thing seeing these geologic structures in a textbook or PowerPoint, but having the opportunity to see them in person gave me a much better understanding of so many concepts.”

three students gathered around notebook
Right to left: Kerry Murphy, Samantha Benjamin and Victoria Villanueva record data using the Brunton compass on Block Mountain in Montana.

The geologic wonders were just part of the experience as the students also discovered the impact of natural disasters exacerbated by human-induced climate change as they explored different areas of the iconic landscapes of Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, Montana and Wyoming.

The Montclair researchers passed through Yellowstone just days before the devastating flooding. In Red Lodge, Montana, they witnessed the result of wildfires that last summer ripped through Red Lodge threatening the geology field station of the Yellowstone-Bighorn Research Association.

“It’s just uncanny the last two years, we left a few days before these events were happening,” Gorring says.

participants of the summer field geology course stand in front of a mountain range in the distance
Participating in the summer’s Field Geology course are from left, Michaela Forbes, Cooper Bane, Diego Vazquez, Matthew Gorring, Karen Mejia, Kerry Murphy, Vanessa Glaser, Arturo Colman Segura, Victoria Villanueva, Julian Gorring, Xiaohong Chopping, Marisa Vallve and Samantha Benjamin (not shown in photo).

Montclair’s Field Geology course provides intensive field training with the mapping of the northern Rockies completed by the students shared with the Bureau of Land Management for geological purposes. Before heading west, the group conducted research closer to home, the wetlands in Alonzo F. Bonsal Preserve on the Montclair-Clifton border. Students examined the soil and groundwater flow, with the environmental geology and hydrology research shared with the preserve.

“Sometimes the terrain is pretty tough, particularly out West,” Gorring says, “but the students figure out how to get by.”

It’s all part of the learning that will help the student researchers in their future work as scientists equipped to address climate change, identify contaminants in the environment and develop effective methods for eliminating contaminants from the air, water and soil.


Photos shared by Matthew Gorring show the spectacular beauty of their summer laboratory.

group of students with mountain in the background
Montclair students endure cold rain at the field site in the Clarks Fork Canyon, Wyoming.
Karen Mejia and Arturo Colman Segura
Karen Mejia and Arturo Colman Segura collect data on the Cretaceous Kootenai Formation for the Block Mountain project near Dillon, Montana.
students taking field measurements and notes
Students measure the orientation of the Jurassic Morrison Formation for the Gypsum Creek project near Lovell, Wyoming.
students seated on low rock wall, scenic valley view beyond
Students at the site of the 1959 Hebgen Lake landslide that was triggered by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck the area just west of Yellowstone National Park in Montana.
students sitting on rocks along the bank of a reservoir
Lunch break at Kelly Reservoir just west of Dillon, Montana. Students mapped out glacial deposits from a huge glacier that filled the valley during the height of the last Ice Age.

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren

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