AIPG: Geophysics in the Time of COVID-19

The following statement was written by Breauna Murray, the 2020-21 President of the American Institute of Professional Geologists' Wayne State University Chapter.

For myself and for many students across the nation, this year has been a unique time of adjustment to online-only university life. While some universities went back to campus in the fall, Wayne State University continued to require virtual classes. As someone who previously lived in the geology lab, being home all day on the computer has been mentally exhausting. Student social life has been severely impacted as well, with in-person extracurricular activities suspended this fall. As the president of the Student Chapter of AIPG at Wayne State, this presents a challenge of maintaining a sense of community while keeping physically distanced. We have found a sense of normality with biweekly online meetings by having guest speakers, and some fun ones as well. Some of these include a fun jeopardy game night, a bad scientific movie Netflix party, etc. It's not quite the same to see friends over a Zoom call, but for now it's all we have.

While lectures have been moved online, Wayne State allows some hands-on lab and field classes to meet in person-socially distanced, with masks on. This new normal took some adjustment too, but these labs have been a real silver lining. One of these field classes is Environmental and Applied Geophysics, taught by Scott Burdick, assistant professor of geology. Although the lectures and discussion groups have been online-only, the class has gathered in person on a few occasions (apparently always during bad weather) to make measurements with geophysical equipment. These field sessions have allowed us to get real experience in designing and conducting our own geophysical surveys.

As a class, we carried out two surveys around Detroit. The first was a ground penetrating radar survey of an archaeological site. The site, the former town center of Hamtramck, Michigan, is being excavated by an archaeology field course lead by Krysta Ryzewski, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, in partnership with the Hamtramck Historical Museum. Ryzewski and her students are investigating this site for artifacts and traces of past structures to understand how this immigrant community grew and developed during the last half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th. Our class staked out a 7 x 34 meter grid and pushed the lawnmower-like GPR around it to locate waste pits, utilities, and the foundations of the historical police and fire departments and the Nut House bar.

For the second survey, our class teamed with researchers from the Wayne State University Healthy Urban Waters Initiative and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to characterize the geology beneath a former gas station. Our colleagues were investigating the movement of volatile organic compounds (VOC) through the complex urban environments, a critical subject since VOCs in groundwater have been linked to adverse birth outcomes. Starting from their well logs, our goal was to map out potential flow pathways beneath the site. Using geophones and a hammer source, we collected seismic data to estimate the depth of the clay aquitard layer in the upper ten meters and search for sand lenses and urban detritus that would allow for VOC transport. It was nice work on a cold fall day-set the metal strike plate, swing the hammer eight times to average out the vibrations from the nearby auto plant, check the data on the monitor, move to the next spot. For the following class period, it was back online to interpret the data and create a model of the subsurface.

Unfortunately, after COVID-19 cases spiked in mid-November, a planned third survey to measure resistivity at the gas station site has been cancelled. All the same, I'm very glad we were able to have the hands-on experience we did, not only because we learned real-world skills, but also because it brought some sense of normalcy. While it doesn't begin to erase everything causing stress on my shoulders, it certainly makes it a little better. During this stressful semester, it may not be much, but I'll take what I can get.

← Back to listing