Just one year after attending a presentation on the history of climate change, Luke Zaelke ’22 found himself on a 10-day camping trip in the mountains of northern California accompanied by three professors from California State University. One of these professors, Matthew Kirby ’93 of Cal State Fullerton, had given that climate change presentation. Afterward Zaelke reached out to ask about his journey from Hamilton to Fullerton as a geoscience student.
A brief back-and-forth over email eventually led to Kirby inviting Zaelke on this summer’s trip to go lake sediment coring in California. Following the completion of some other geoscience research with Hamilton Professor David Bailey, Zaelke joined Kirby, Cal State Fullerton Professor Joe Carlin, and Cal State Humboldt Professor Laura Levy on their visits to Picayune and Middle Deadfall lakes.
“At first, it was really intimidating to be the only undergraduate and the only student during 10 days of fieldwork,” Zaelke said. “But after just a few minutes I felt right at home and loved the entire experience.”
A sedimentologist, Kirby focuses on the reconstruction of the recent paleoclimate during the Pleistocene Epoch. Their research group, Zaelke said, would “take cores from lake beds and get a stratigraphic column that demonstrated past events through the different layers in the sediment.” This allowed the team to reconstruct the overall environment of the area during the chosen period of study — in this case, a geological epoch beginning over 2.5 million years ago.
After Zaelke and the professors collected a sufficient number of cores, Levy brought the samples to her lab at Humboldt for analysis. Zaelke then spent the remainder of the research period in Kirby’s lab, helping him examine cores taken from a pond along the San Andreas Fault. Zaelke said that he employed magnetic susceptibility, a method used to determine a variety of geological factors about a sample, to compare the core to others taken in the area.
Zaelke credited two Hamilton professors, Bailey and sedimentologist Cat Beck, with having been particularly influential in providing him with valuable geoscience skills. During his research with Bailey, Zaelke said he “learned a lot on how to properly catalog samples in geoscience, which was very necessary for the project with Kirby.” Beck, he added, did an “amazing job teaching sedimentology even while classes went pass/fail [due to COVID] … I would not have been able to do this without her.”
Looking forward, Zaelke hopes to go into environmental consulting and earn a master’s degree in geology. His experiences this summer, he said, have “ignited my love for geology, and [the professors’] enthusiasm is making me strongly consider a path in research.”