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Sedimentary, My Dear Watson

By Guy Spriggs

With sea levels rising, will coastal land along the northern Gulf of Mexico naturally build itself up enough to combat the loss of its coastline? As the coastline continues to disappear, where will the rate of loss be worst?

When did pollution in Maine’s Penobscot River begin? Is the polluted material being introduced into our food chain? Are new laws helping reduce the pollution level?

If we wanted to answer these important questions, where would we turn?

These questions – and many more – can be solved by the unique equipment and skilled researchers working in Kevin Yeager’s Sedimentary, Environmental and Radiochemical Research Laboratory (SER2L) at the University of Kentucky.

>>View a photo album of SER2L 

“This is one of the best equipped environmental radiochemistry laboratories in the country,” said Yeager, a sedimentary geologist and environmental radiochemist in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES). “There are very few laboratories that do what we do, and even fewer that can handle the number of samples we do. We represent a unique capability here at UK.”

Yeager came to UK in 2011 after renovations to the Sloan Building provided space for new equipment and workstations. SER2L is a common-use facility, meaning other EES faculty and students who need its resources are welcome to use it. “The College [of Arts & Sciences] and the University have invested in this facility and they want it to be as fully utilized as possible,” he said.

SER2L already has established partnerships with researchers in the Department of Geography and College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, but Yeager wants there to be greater awareness of what the lab can offer to the research and academic environment at UK.

“We’re always looking for new collaborations. We bring something new to the University – the things we’re doing didn’t previously exist here, and now they do,” said Yeager. “We want the broader UK community to know about us and what our capabilities are.”

In addition to the research capabilities of SER2L, the lab also offers invaluable experiences for undergraduates. For Yeager, it is important to employ undergraduates so they are able to build research skills while also being paid. “We try to employ undergraduate research assistants as often as we can, and it’s great for them to get money by doing something they can add to their resume,” he said.

According to Yeager, SER2L has four main components: sediment archiving, physical sedimentology, aqueous geochemistry and radiochemistry. The archive is housed in Bowman Hall, allowing Yeager to facilitate similar work being done by other scientists.

“We have sediment samples from all over the world that are in dry or cold storage. We do that because scientists will read our work and ask us to send them materials for use for something else,” Yeager explained.

All of the work done in SER2L is built upon the analysis of sediment. The isotopes characterized by Yeager and his research assistants are comprised of elements that are particle-reactive and can be analyzed by the various instruments in the lab. Since particle-reactive elements tend to stick to particulate matter, sediment can be examined to determine where it came from, how old it is, how rapidly it has accumulated, and more.

The main space in SER2L is devoted primarily to sedimentology and aqueous geochemistry. The workstations there rely on both common equipment – analytical balances, graduated cylinders, centrifuges – and more complex tools – acid digestion hoods, a clean water system, mortar miller – to process sediment core samples collected from the field.

Yeager describes the analytical space in the lab as an “instrument park,” but its capabilities are far from ordinary. For instance, this space contains five gamma ray spectrometers – lead-shielded containers used to measure gamma radiation coming from sediment sample(s). “People think the lead is there to protect us from the radiation, but it’s actually the other way around,” Yeager explained. “We are being bombarded by radiation from the sun and from space, and we only want to measure the radiation coming from the sample.”

The laboratory also features a research-grade dissecting microscope, a Malvern mastersizer (used to derive the size distribution of sediment) and an alpha spectrometer (used to measure the emission of alpha particles). However, when discussing the capabilities of SER2L, Yeager underscores the important roles played by research analyst Kimberly Schindler and graduate assistants like Stephen Prosser.

Prosser, a graduate student researching in SER2L, came to UK and joined Yeager’s group to pursue his interest in studying sedimentary responses in rivers. “Once I visited campus, the lab and the group, it was all set for me. I loved the atmosphere, the camaraderie and the higher level of science being completed in the lab,” he explained.

During his time in SER2L, Prosser has learned every chemical method and how to operate every instrument in the lab. These newly-acquired skills have given him the chance to analyze sediments for his own research at incredibly fine scales, as well as participate in contract work on larger research projects. “We all collaborate on each other’s projects and other non-student-driven projects. It’s nice to have your hands in more than one thing,” said Prosser.

As research analyst and laboratory manager, Schindler is in charge of teaching procedures to student assistants and running day-to-day operations in SER2L. She has worked for Yeager since her time as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

“She knows how to run all these machines and how to do all the methods in SER2L. She’s an invaluable resource to the students who come through here. Kim is essential in maintaining a safe working environment for the people in the laboratory,” Yeager said.

“We have a few mottos around the lab. One is ‘quality over quantity.’ We strive to do quality research work, and all of us profit from the work we produce,” Schindler added. “Another is that we are a collective. We endeavor to make it ‘our’ work and we all benefit from the help we receive from each other.”

With unique equipment and a well-trained staff, SER2L participates in an incredibly wide range of research, from showing the effects of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill on the ecology of marsh organisms to measuring coastal accretion and its relationship to sea level rise to understanding the record of past climate change as captured in sediments from large inland lakes – and many more.