Office of Undergraduate Research

Alaina Helm '21

OUR Featured Researcher: Alaina Helm '21

Portrait of Alaina Helm.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Alaina Helm (she/her) is a Archaeological Studies and Geology major conducting mentored research under Professors Amy Margaris and Zeb Page. Her project is titled “Digitally Reuniting an Alaskan Ethnographic Collection/ Petrology of an Oxidized Blueschist from San Onofre, CA". 

Please describe your project: 

Over the past several few semesters, I have been involved in two research projects. Within the geology department I have been doing petrologic research on blueschist (a metamorphic rock) to increase understanding of subduction zones in southern California. Within the Archaeological Studies department I have worked as part of a new initiative to digitally reunite a collection of native Alaskan ethnographic objects that are scattered across the globe including here in Oberlin.

My work on California subduction zones has centered on increasing knowledge on the
metamorphic origins and conditions of formation of understudied blueschist deposits found within the San Onofre Breccia, a sedimentary formation found along costal parts of Southern California.

Conversely working with collaborators at Oberlin and The Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Study Center I have been able to track down the whereabouts of hundreds of Native Alaskan objects collected by Edward William Nelson in the late nineteenth century. This project is the beginning of a concentrated effort to create a database where anyone can learn about the collection as a whole online, even if the collection is spread across several states, countries, and even continents. This project has enabled me to connect both virtually and through email to various museum curators around the world.

Why is your research important?

Digitally reuniting the Alaskan ethnographic objects collected by Edward William Nelson in a digital database will provide a meaningful way for Native Alaskans and academics alike to locate and interact with this important collection that documents Native Alaska culture and is dispersed globally. Additionally, creating a database reuniting a global collection would serve as a useful model for other collections that have been similarly dispersed.

Understanding the metamorphic origins of cobbles from the San Onofre Breccia will formulate a more complete comprehension of the geologic history of Southern California and how earth was changing during the cretaceous period.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

Working to locate Alaskan items that had are part of Edward William Nelson’s collection, I have searched through museum databases and exchange records through online research and have reached out to other institutions to inquire about their collections and get more information. Additionally, working with a team including researchers both from Oberlin and the Smithsonian I have helped consider the challenges of creating a collection database across multiple institutions.

Working to understand the metamorphic origins of the San Onofre Breccia has included
analyses using traditional optical microscopy and scanning electron microscopy. This research involved considerable time spent analyzing the mineral and chemical composition of blueschist from the San Onofre Breccia, and I also learned how to use Perple_X, a geochemical modeling program.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

In my research I have found that the blueschist cobble I have been analyzing from the San Onofre Breccia is likely from the Franciscan subduction event, a subduction event that peaked around 145 million years ago. This conflicts with the popular assumption that blueschist within the San Onofre Breccia comes from the younger Catalina subduction event.

My work to digitally reunite E.W. Nelson’s collection as part of my senior capstone project as an archaeological studies major has begun a concerted effort across several institutions to learn more about these Alaskan objects. This is a project that will continue to develop and grow, as younger students are already beginning to pick up the project and keep the momentum going.

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I have presented research projects in a variety of settings at Oberlin, including at department sponsored presentation events and at the upcoming celebration of undergraduate research. I will also be presenting in the Geologic Society of America’s Cordilleran section meeting this May, and have presented some earlier archaeology research on end scraper material durability at the REARC experimental archaeology conference at the University of Mary Washington in fall of 2019.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

For all of the research projects I have been involved with as an Oberlin Student, I have enjoyed getting to develop new skills and help develop people’s understanding of the world. Whether through helping a person learn and interact from material culture on a digital exhibit or increasing our scientific understanding of earth’s history it is always incredible to see what is learned along.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project?

Both my research on the San Onofre Breccia and on Alaskan ethnographic collections
would not be possible without my fantastic research mentors. They have taught me the skills necessary to complete both projects and helped to advise me throughout the research process.

How has it impacted you as a researcher?

Working with both of my research mentors here at Oberlin, I have learned to consider problems from different angles and have developed new skills to aid in the completion of my research projects. From both mentors, I have picked up invaluable skills that will continue to be useful even after my time at Oberlin comes to an end.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

Conducting research related to both archaeology and geology have allowed me to develop useful skills preparing me for a future in either field, and has allowed me to consider my own interests and help decide what I want to do in the future. In addition to heling me to develop new skills and grow in many ways, my research mentors were also invaluable resources when considering my career after Oberlin and helped me when applying to and deciding to attend graduate school to continue my academic development.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

I would say that if a student wants to get involved with research in a specific field, they
should take classes within that field be in communication with their professors about their interests. Even if it may seem intimidating, if there’s a project you are interested in don’t be afraid to ask about it.