Montana State University

MSU grad student will use NSF fellowship to uncover secrets of ancient Montana rocks

July 18, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MSU grad student Zach Adam is one of nine MSU-affiliated students who received an NSF graduate fellowship this year. Adam is shown here in Shughnan, Afghanistan where he helped conduct an earthquake education workshop for teachers and trainers from all across Afghanistan. In the background is the Panj River, which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Zach Adam).    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -Zach Adam loves the movie "Tremors" because of its dramatic rock slides, flying boulders, and snake-like creatures that spring out of the ground. The Montana State University graduate student in earth sciences says he has long been fascinated by rocks and the potential secrets they conceal.

Now because of a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation, Adam has a chance to look for surprises in real rocks. He is specifically interested in the 1.4 billion-year-old rocks known as the "Belt Supergroup" found in Glacier National Park and all over western Montana.

Adam is one of nine MSU-affiliated students who learned this spring that they would receive an NSF Graduate Fellowship amounting to $30,000 a year for three years. Seven are current or previous MSU students. Two are from other institutions and plan to use their awards at MSU.

Adam said he will use his fellowship first to scout for rocks that might contain fossils of microorganisms. Such fossils are far smaller than the dinosaur bones of eastern Montana, but Adam said he will look for rocks that have unusual textures that have been associated with tiny fossils. Back at MSU, he will cut the rocks into thin slices, view them with a microscope and examine them in MSU's Imaging and Chemical Analysis Laboratory.

If he finds fossils that indicate complex multicellular life, the discovery could speak to the history of this planet and the development of life, Adam said. It might also offer clues about the ancient environment that could help scientists looking for life on other planets. The Belt Supergroup has already yielded fossils that have also been found in other parts of the world, but Adam said more fossils need to be found in order to understand how multicellular life evolved.

"You can't set up conditions in the lab," Adam said. "You have to go to the fossil record over hundreds of millions of years."

Adam, a native of the pear and apple country around Cashmere, Wash., said he became acquainted with the Bozeman area after working for a year with Americorps in Missoula. He came to MSU in part because of its location, but said he appreciates its size, the cross-disciplinary cooperation among its scientists and the help he received in readjusting to academia.

Living in Bozeman puts him relatively close to his study sites, Adam said. He plans to look at areas discovered more than 100 years ago by American geologist Charles Doolittle Walcott, but he will look for new study areas, too. Some of those may include road cuts. Others might be outcrops carved by creeks in narrow canyons. He likes the idea of hiking for fun and accidentally coming across something significant, Adam added.

Before coming to MSU for his doctoral degree, Adam earned two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree at the University of Washington. One bachelor's degree was in Earth and Space Sciences and the other in Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering. His master's degree was in Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering. Adam then worked 2 ˝ years as a launch vehicle inspector for the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C. He was part of the regulatory division that oversaw rocket technologies and designs developed by private enterprise.

In addition to his government work, Adam co-founded Parsquake, an ongoing project that helps residents of Persian-speaking countries such as Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran prepare for earthquakes. Countries such as Tajikistan and Afghanistan are prone to earthquakes, but they are so remote that outside help would be a long time in coming, said Adam who spent six weeks there this summer.

Because of his involvement with Tajikistan and Afghanistan through the Parsquake Project and his experiences with "Teachers Without Borders" in China, Adam said he is a strong believer in public outreach. Scientists who work in an area should do more than gather information there and leave, he said. Besides sharing their discoveries with researchers, they should share them with students, teachers and other area residents.

He plans to do just that with his Belt Supergroup study which officially begins this fall, Adam said. That outreach may start with him working with Montana high school teachers to develop lesson plans about Montana rocks.

MSU faculty members who work with Adam applauded him for receiving the NSF Graduate Fellowship. John Peters, for one, head of MSU's Astrobiology Biogeocatalysis Research Center, noted Adam's creativity and strong independent thinking. Peters added that he has no doubt that Adam will make his mark in astrobiology, a pioneering area of study that links evolutionary biology and geology. Adam's thesis project mentors are Mark Skidmore and David Mogk in the Department of Earth Sciences.

Other recipients of the 2011/2012 NSF Graduate Fellowships with ties to MSU are:

Chandra Macauley, Kathryn Morrissey and Nichole Schonenbach, all 2011 graduates from the MSU College of Engineering. For more information, read "Three for the show: Trio of female chemical engineering seniors win top NSF Graduate Fellowship"

Rachel Lange, a 2009 MSU graduate who is now a graduate student in life sciences-ecology at the University of Washington.

Nathaniel Park, a 2009 MSU graduate who is now a graduate student in organic chemistry at the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Leif Anderson, a 2007 MSU graduate who is now a graduate student in geosciences (paleoclimate) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was MSU's top senior in geology in 2006.

Joanna Bridge, a graduate from the University of Illinois, plans to use her fellowship to study physics and astronomy (astrophysics) at MSU.

Amalie Tuerk, a graduate from Pennsylvania State University, plans to use her fellowship to study environmental engineering at MSU.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu