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Water grant equipment gives boost to CWC research

Sep 3, 2013 - From staff reports

Professor Suzanne Smaglik uses the geophysics tools to help forward her work in Hot Springs State Park.

The hot mineral springs in Thermopolis soothe Central Wyoming College professor Suzanne Smaglik's quest to document the different species of microbes that live in the steamy environment. The earth and physical science professor has received a technological boost from the University of Wyoming to assist her research efforts.

"I hope to find clues to early life on Earth," Smaglik said. "Some of these species are related to some of the first we have found in fossils in the rock record. We can find out how these thermophiles (heat-loving microbes) live in these environments and apply that to what we know about ancient life."

To help forward her work in Hot Springs State Park, Smaglik borrowed geophysics equipment from UW's Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics.

UW's collaboration with the state's community colleges is part of the outreach component of a five-year, $20 million grant award from the National Science Foundation to Wyoming's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The grant has enabled WyCEHG to acquire unique instrumentation for field and lab studies in hydrology and near-surface geophysics, as well as to hire experts in the use of those instruments.

"A key part of the $20 million EPSCoR grant is outreach to and collaboration with community colleges in Wyoming," said Steve Holbrook, director of WyCEHG and a UW professor of geology and geophysics. "It's important for us -- and the National Science Foundation -- that this large grant benefit the entire state of Wyoming, not just a few researchers at UW."

"Our partner faculty at three community colleges wrote proposals -- or co-wrote them with their students -- to use our equipment for groundwater-related studies around the state," Holbrook said. "We, in turn, provide funding for their field work, free access to our equipment, and training in both the equipment and the data analysis techniques."

In May, Brad Carr, a senior research scientist in UW's Department of Geology and Geophysics and facility manager for WyCEHG's Facility for Imaging the Near- and Subsurface Environment, conducted a two-day training session of the equipment with professors and students from Casper College and Central Wyoming College. During the session, researchers learned the basics of ground-penetrating radar, seismic refraction, electrical resistivity and soil conductivity measurements.

A geophysical jolt

Smaglik -- with the help of Ruth Law, a CWC sophomore majoring in earth and environmental science, and Lance Murakami, Smaglik's volunteer assistant -- spent the morning of Aug. 3 pounding stakes along a 75-meter swath of land over a cave at White Sulfur Springs along the Big Horn River. The group hooked electrodes to the stakes, which were set up every 2 meters along the measuring tape.

The researchers then set up and programmed the Super Sting R8, an earth resistivity meter that injects an electrical current to help researchers image the cave.

"We're hoping to see the void of the cave and the potential water flow to the cave," Smaglik said.

Law previously had crawled as far back as she could -- about 12-14 feet -- into the cave and found the ground inside to be moist; she collected thermophile samples. Spring water emerges from a small hole nearby the cave entrance.

"One of my goals is to get students involved in field research and get them excited about doing science," Smaglik said. "Using this WyCEHG equipment gets freshmen and sophomores involved in research right away. The UW grant also provides us funding to pay students to have internships with me, and allows students to present their findings statewide or nationally. We will be presenting the results of this project in October at the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver."

Law is grateful for the opportunity to use new equipment in the field in Thermopolis, as well as other research she has conducted with Smaglik. The experience has paid off; Law is currently an intern at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Riverton.

Smaglik's interest in studying the hot springs was piqued after attending a thermal biology workshop at Yellowstone National Park in 2005.

"I asked if anyone had done any thermal biology research in Thermopolis, and they said no," Smaglik said.

Hot Springs State Park contains one of the largest mineral hot springs in the world. Water flow fluctuates between 1.8 million gallons and 2.4 million gallons daily and is 128 degrees Fahrenheit, according to park records and the Wyoming State Engineer's Office. Smaglik says she has consistently measured the Big Spring's temperature at 126 degrees Fahrenheit.

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