UTIG Ph.D. student Catherine Ross just returned from a conference and trip to the field in Mexico. She shares more about her research and what she enjoys most about being at UTIG.
Degree working towards and anticipated graduation date: Ph.D., 2021
What led you to study at UTIG for your Ph.D.?
The project, the people, and the resources! My project is what caught my eye – it did not take me long to figure out that an opportunity to work on a project like the Chicxulub impact crater is a once in a lifetime experience and should not be passed up. I came from a relatively small program and when I visited I was very impressed with UT’s extensive network of scientists, labs, and classes offered.
I am forever impressed by my peers; it’s nice to be surrounded by people who are so passionate about what they do! My research involves a lot of time in the state-of-the-art labs on main campus. It’s a really awesome opportunity to spend my time spilt between main campus and Pickle Research Campus because they are both special and unique in their own way.
What are you currently researching?
I work on the Chicxulub impact crater and it’s aftermath at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary (66 million years ago). The asteroid impact is best known for killing the dinosaurs and 75% of life on earth. I am investigating these processes using geochronology. In 2016, Sean Gulick (one of my advisors), his co-chief scientist Joanna Morgan, and the IODP Expedition 364 science party drilled into the crater on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Interestingly, after drilling through impact-related rocks, they drilled into a granite. The granite is what makes up the mid-crust of the Yucatan. Using geochronology of zircons, I have identified the age that the granite formed and found that it is a very unique age; it is different from rocks found in other parts of the crater. When the crater hit the Yucatan Peninsula, it vaporized/ejected the target rocks and scattered bits of the Yucatan around the world. I have been studying these deposits of ejected material in the Gulf of Mexico region. So far I have been to the outcrops in the Brazos River of Texas and southern Mexico with plans to go to Alabama, Missouri, and maybe Cuba! I hope to find zircons from the crater in these deposits; this will help us figure out the timing of the different processes related to the impact. The impact ejected material from the crater but it also created earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires.
How did you become interested in your area of research?
Throughout my undergraduate and Master’s, I worked on exhumed strike-slip fault zones that preserve frictional melt created during earthquake rupture called pseudotachylyte. The asteroid flash melted part of the target rock when it hit the Yucatan Peninsula, similar to pseudotachylyte but on a WAY bigger scale. I’ve been fond of deformed rocks for a while and the Chicxulub crater arguably hosts some of the most catastrophically deformed rocks in the world, which I was so excited to work on. I also wanted to learn some new skills so learning about the geochronology and sedimentological aspect of impact has been awesome.
You just returned from Mexico – tell us about your trip.
It was so eye-opening! First, there was a 3-day conference with all of the IODP Expedition 364 science party where everyone presented what they have been working on so far. It was really nice to meet everyone, hear what they have been working on, and discuss in a small group setting the cool science that everyone has been doing.
It was also great for collaborations, I saw data that agrees with our data so it was easy to talk to the presenter about working together since it was such a small meeting. Then most of the science party went on a two-day field trip to look at some of the local breccia deposits that are interpreted as ground-hugging debris flows from the crater. We also swam with stromatolites which was a nice cool down! Then for 4 days, Danny Stockli, Sean Gulick, 2 Dutch colleagues, and I did some fieldwork in southern Mexico looking at the impact-related deposits. We sampled all of the outcrops so I can separate the sample for zircons to see if they record the Chicxulub crater basement ages. Also, we got to go to the Palenque ruins!
What is your favorite part of your research?
The newness of everything. I like that when I have a seemingly stupid question – someone answers, “We don’t actually know that yet.” There are so many new findings and stories to discover! The Chicxulub crater and K-Pg deposits are really well documented but the processes that created the deposits are still temporally confusing. All of the techniques I’m using are also new, which is exciting – it’s like drinking from a firehose 24/7.
What is your favorite part about studying and working at UTIG?
The atmosphere! Main campus can feel a little overwhelming sometimes so it’s nice to come up to UTIG and be able to focus. Since my lab work is based on main campus it is nice to have a separation between the lab work there and writing papers, proposals, and abstracts at UTIG. I like how cheerful and friendly everyone is here. I feel especially lucky that I get to work with world-class scientists who are so willing to help me learn.
What advice would you give to new graduate students?
Time management. It’s really important to schedule things and plan ahead, otherwise nothing will get done on time. I still struggle with this. I think I am way faster at lab work and writing than I actually am but I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who has this problem.
What are your career goals for after you graduate?
I’m still deciding since I just finished my first year. I’d like to do an internship at an oil company to see if it’s really for me before I make any career decisions. I think I’d like to stay in academia and keep learning!