'Case of the Missing Dirt' Brings Oberlin to China

September 25, 2013

James Helmsworth

Students taking soil samples from the edge of a river
Bower and the rest of Schmidt’s research team takes a soil sample from a river in Yunnan Province, China.
Photo credit: Amanda Schmidt

China is a long way from Finney Chapel and the conservatory practice rooms in Robertson. And for Jenny Bower ’13, that’s just fine.

The double-degree graduate, who majored in geology and organ performance, says that she was first attracted to the former by the extensive fieldwork conducted in her introductory class and how different it was from her musical education. “There aren’t any organs or harpsichords in the wilderness,” she says.

This summer, her fieldwork took her further into the unknown, as she accompanied Amanda Schmidt, assistant professor of geology, to China’s Yunnan province to assist her with research. Schmidt’s research, first funded by a National Science Foundation grant, examines what happens to sediment that occurs in rivers from erosion due to agriculture.

Bower describes the research as “the case of the missing sediment.” At the present, there is not as much sediment in the Mekong River watershed as scientists expect there should be, judging by the amount of erosion from deforestation that has occurred around the river. Schmidt, along with Bower and a team of researchers from University of Vermont and Sichuan University, is attempting to determine the processes at play that keep the sediment level so surprisingly low.

Schmidt explains that the Chinese government keeps much more detailed records of river sedimentation than does the United States government. While American officials measure water sedimentation about 10 days a year, the Chinese government measures it almost every day—and has since the 1940s. “It’s the perfect location to try and figure out about this disconnect,” says Schmidt.

China is also an ideal location for logistical reasons. Schmidt, who grew up in Hong Kong, describes herself as “conversational” in Chinese, and has given lectures on her research in the language.

The third student to accompany Schmidt to China since 2010, Bower helped Schmidt calibrate the measurement system necessary for pursuing further research. The professor, now beginning her third year at Oberlin, reported on her work two summers ago in the New York Times’s “Scientist at Work” blog, in which scientists write about their research.

The results from Schmidt’s research will provide a more detailed understanding of the way sediment is transported in large watersheds, which should, in turn, help authorities manage rivers more effectively. This kind of information is badly needed. At the present, dams in China and across the world are filling up faster than they their designers had planned. Perhaps more importantly, Schmidt’s research could also impact the way that water is distributed to people.

“Understanding how sediment moves in the environment is important for supplying clean water to all those people,” she says.

Originally trained as an environmental engineer, Schmidt is no stranger to the overlap between hard science and social science. Interdisciplinary study like this is not only a feature of her research, but of some classes she teaches, as well, like Soil and Society, an introductory-level class in the geology department that covers the science behind soil and humans’ impact upon it.

Schmidt says that she appreciates this kind of broad-minded thinking from Bower, and cites the graduate’s double-degree education as an asset to solving scientific problems. “They’re able to think about so many different things,” Schmidt says of double degree students. Bower is, in fact, one of two double-degree students in Schmidt’s lab. The other, trombone and geology major Adrian Singleton ’16, conducted research for Schmidt in Oberlin over the summer.

True to her double degree education, Bower’s future plans include both organ and geology: she is currently pursuing a Masters in Music Education degree in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and she plans to join the GeoCorps, an organization run by the Geological Society of America that provides members with geoscience positions in National Parks, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management lands afterward.

Bower reciprocates Schmidt’s admiration. “She’s an amazing mentor who has a huge network of women scientist mentors at other universities,” Bower says of Schmidt.

Schmidt will return to China over winter term with Singleton and Yue Qiu’14 to continue her research.

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