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Professor Robert Gaines Continues NSF Research on Shale Deposits, Exploring Rapid Appearance of Animal Life on Earth

Pomona Geology Professor Robert Gaines shows off some rock samples. Gaines received an NSF grant last year that has created opportunities for student research.

Pomona Geology Professor Robert Gaines shows off some rock samples. Gaines received an NSF grant last year that has created opportunities for student research. Photo: Rachel Noll '15, The Student Life

Associate Professor of Geology at Pomona College Robert Gaines continued his research into Burgess Shale-type deposits in the Yunnan Province this summer, furthering his use of a $184,036 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that he received in December. The grant, which Gaines and his team received for their project “The Chengjiang Scientific Drilling Project and an Integrated Model for Understanding Burgess Shale-type deposits,” has provided students at Pomona with an opportunity to conduct cutting edge geological research.

Gaines began his research in 2008 along with his team of geologists and other researchers. Focusing particularly on the Cambrian period of geologic time, Gaines’s project explores the environmental conditions that gave way to the rapid appearance of animal life on Earth.

“This didn’t happen gradually over many, many millions of years like Darwin would have predicted," Gaines said. "Instead the geological record tells us that this happened really quickly."

His team has already drilled three holes in the Yunnan Province area and has extracted core samples that will allow them to pursue clues to ancient oceanic and atmospheric chemical compositions. The team predicts the results will explain why animals appeared on the geological record in such a short time.

"We’re investigating both increases in oxygen as well as changes in chemistry of the oceans that may have promoted the advent of animal skeletons,” Gaines said.

One Pomona student who has benefited from Gaines's research is Lorelei Curtin PO '13, who joined the project last year.

“I spent all of the last summer analyzing one of the cores using the XRF and this summer I started working on my own project that’s affiliated with it,” Curtin said. XRF stands for x-ray fluorescence and is a chemical process used to measure the precise elemental composition of rock samples.

Curtin was able to conduct her own research on the data obtained from Gaines’s research project. With Gaines's help, she will present her findings at the Geological Society of America’s national meeting next week.

“It’s a really great opportunity because he has all this money that he can pay students to work for him and get to use these awesome instruments,” Curtin said of the grant.

Despite receiving numerous positive reviews for his team's project, which they proposed in 2008, it took more than two years for Gaines to receive funding from the highly competitive NSF grant.

“The NSF is pretty pressed for money right now so it’s hard even for proposals that are reviewed well…[but] it’s important to be persistent when you think you have a good idea,” Gaines said.

Currently, Gaines and his team have a large amount of data that will be analyzed to the smallest detail in the hopes of answering some of the geological questions associated with the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary, which is tied to the origin of complex life on Earth.

“We’re in a really exciting phase where we have a lot of preliminary results,” Gaines said. Gaines’s research team has collected so much data that they have been able to create a substantial hypothesis for why animals appeared in a relatively short period of time, something that Gaines said he is excited to publish in three upcoming papers on the subject.

Students will also have the chance to use the new CHNS (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur) elemental analyzer that Pomona will be able to purchase with the grant in research projects. The $40,000 machine will allow Gaines, other faculty, and students to measure the amounts of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur in geological or organic samples, something that they could not do with the XRF machine.

“This will be a great benefit to student research projects, not only in my research program, but also in many other lines of research that our students are doing,” Gaines said.

This article originally appeared in The Student Life.