Funneling water-monitoring well data into a geodatabase. Researching formations suitable for CO2 sequestration. Creating a digital storytelling exhibit about fossils. Analyzing coal ash samples for rare earth elements. Four Indiana earth science students have been able to explore more research and career options than they’d known existed before their Potter Internships began in May.
The students, Elena Cruz, Rachel Culver, Melissa Humbarger, and Trent Stegink, are the IGWS’s second class of Potter Interns, chosen for 4- to 10-week paid internships funded by the Paul Edwin Potter Trust.
Potter, a geologist and professor in the Midwest and South America, worked at Indiana University from 1963 to 1970. His estate granted $1 million each to the geological surveys of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky to establish “summer internships for worthy and deserving geology students and other persons involved in high school, college, or post-graduate master’s education … in the field of geology.” The IGWS is receiving a percentage of the endowment each year to hire Potter interns to work on “geologic problems linked to Indiana.”
This summer’s interns were chosen from a highly competitive pool of 48 applicants. Each was asked to pick from a list of six possible projects.
Project: Indiana fossils educational StoryMap
Cruz worked with staff mentor Polly Sturgeon to create an interactive StoryMap describing Indiana’s fossil history and where to find fossils in the state. A rising junior at IU Northwest, Cruz chose geology as her major after competing in “dynamic planet” and water quality events in Science Olympiad in high school. As a younger student, she also collected science books.
Geology “just clicked” because “it includes so many other different sciences, which is something I’ve always loved,” she said. “I think (geology) is really so much more engaging to the public than, like, chemistry; some people think that’s a little too scary. But with geology, it’s more like, ‘How far do you want to go into the subject?’ because ... you have paleoecology, you have the changes in the environment, you have chemical stuff, what their shells or made of, what the water is made of. I feel like I’m learning something new every single day.”
Cruz's interactive fossil StoryMap will be published in the Indiana Journal of Earth Sciences later this year and might also be offered in Spanish.
The internship reinforced her desire to work in public outreach or collections to help introduce geology to people who “don’t know what they’re missing,” she said.
Project: Review of geological and petrophysical data for energy storage opportunities
Working with staff mentor Ashley Douds, Culver’s main task was to find well log records related to Cambrian- and Ordovician-age rocks in the IGWS’s Petroleum Data Management System (PDMS) and other sources, then pull certain types of data into a spreadsheet. The IGWS Energy Team is preparing for the CarbonSAFE Mitchell carbon sequestration project, which will kick off later this year.
Culver graduated from Purdue University in May with a bachelor’s degree in geology and geophysics and a minor in soil science. After taking a trip as a teen to Yellowstone National Park, studying geology overtook her earlier dream of opening a bakery. She was researching carbon sequestration last semester, and this internship allowed her to go deeper into the conditions needed to successfully contain carbon emissions in geologic formations.
She’s especially enjoyed going out in the field with IGWS scientists to help collect soil samples and conduct seismic tests—neither of which she’d seen before.
“The networking has been really great,” she said. “Every geologist I met in undergrad was super nice, which is what I was expecting (here), but I’ve also been getting more experience working with carbon data and geologic software in general and solidifying that I am really interested in this and hopefully I can pursue a career in it in the future.”
Project: Improving correlations of Pennsylvanian rock units in Indiana
Humbarger, a rising junior in IU Bloomington’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, had never heard of the studies she’s now helping to carry out in the IGWS Energy Lab. She’s been working with staff mentors Dr. Maria Mastalerz and LaBraun Hampton to prepare and identify organic petrology samples.
Organic petrology is the study of the composition, structure, and origin of organic matter in sedimentary rocks, such as coal. “My first day I got here, Maria gave me a stack of her papers and I was like, ‘What?’” Humbarger said. “It’s like a whole other science.”
Her project involves identifying certain elements in the chemical structure of Pennsylvanian-age black shale samples to help place “mystery rocks” into unit correlations. Studying samples under a microscope, “since they’re organic-rich rocks, you can get a lot of information about the environment of where it was deposited a million years ago,” she explained. “And if you can characterize the samples better, then you can try to correlate them to the same rock horizons in other places.”
One of her favorite experiences so far has been collecting coal waste from coal preparation plants in the field and then preparing the samples to analyze for rare earth elements and other critical minerals.
She hopes to continue what she’s started with the IGWS Energy Team, since she’ll be studying in the IU Geology building for the next two years. “I kind of had no idea about my future plans with geology because I’m only going to be a junior and there’s really a lot you can do with it … but I learned I like research a lot and working with the lab. So, hopefully I can keep doing the research I am with Maria, because that’s pretty interesting, the microscopy.”
Project: Groundwater quantity and quality data collection
Stegink will be entering his second year as an IU master’s student studying geochemistry. He applied for a summer Potter Internship to bolster his skills in data collection and management. With guidance from staff mentors McKailey Sabaj and Ginger Davis, Stegink has been building a geodatabase for the data flowing into Indiana Water Balance Network and National Ground Water Monitoring Network stations across the state.
His undergraduate degree, from the University of Michigan, was in earth and environmental sciences, not computer science. For his master’s project, he’s been researching soil contamination and lead uptake in plants, not water quality or quantity. The potential he saw in this internship, though, was gaining real-world experience and confidence in GIS, coding, and data analysis—and that’s what he’s been getting.
“I could see myself doing work with water or water quality in the future, doing similar things to this, because there are parallels between environmental science and looking at soil contamination,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about GIS and data management and how you manage a huge area.”
He’s glad to have had opportunities to problem-solve and learn some technical skills on his own, like how to design the geodatabase. Though it won’t be finished by the time his internship ends, he’s made substantial progress on a long-hoped-for project.
“My biggest challenge has been my own expectations,” he said. “… At the very least, I’m learning things, and even though I won’t be around for completion … it’s been an interesting experience to see how these sorts of projects work out in real life, and the successes and pitfalls and navigating that process.”
It’s also given him a window into what a career at a state survey could look like. “I’m really glad this opportunity is here,” he said. “I’d never thought about doing state survey work. … It’s nice to know that there are more options than just federal (agency jobs).”
Apply for 2024
Applications for summer 2024 Potter Internships will open in February on the IGWS website.
“I encourage anyone to apply if they have even a little bit of an interest,” Culver said, “because the more you learn, the better.”