Undergraduate Research

Paige Monyak '22

OUR Featured Researcher: Paige Monyak '22

Portrait of Paige Monyak.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Paige Monyak (she/her) is a Geology & Environmental Studies major conducting mentored research under Professor Amanda Schmidt. Her project is titled “Quantifying salt marsh sediment accumulation since 1963 dredging in Martha’s Vineyard, MA".

Please describe your project: 

Over the past three years of conducting geomorphology research, I’ve had the opportunity to work on two research projects. My first project investigated the erosional impacts of deforestation and reforestation through the Returning Farmland to Forest Program in southwestern China. My current project and anticipated Honors thesis is working to quantify sedimentation rates in salt marshes on Martha’s Vineyard. This rate of sediment infilling will be used to determine the cost-effectiveness of future dredging projects and help local community members establish more sustainable marsh management practices.

To understand sediment movement, our lab utilizes the fallout radionuclides (FRN) 137Cs and unsupported 210Pb, which are radioactive isotopes present in the atmosphere and soil, to temporally and spatially constrain erosion based on their times of deposition. 137Cs was deposited onto surface sediments around the 1960s due to atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, while unsupported 210Pb traces current surface material due to its continual atmospheric decay from 238U.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

Using geochemistry and geomorphology, we’re able to understand anthropogenic effects on erosional processes. Short-lived radioactive isotopes act as tracers of sediment movement through aquatic systems, and we’re able to constrain their spatial and temporal distribution to answer erosional questions. In salt marshes on Martha’s Vineyard, I’m quantifying the amount of sediment that has filled in the marshes, how that sediment is impacting the sustainability of the area, and how the community can better manage the marsh ecosystem to maintain its presence.

Why is your research important?

Geomorphology research contributes to an array of scientific knowledge such as the data behind climate change policy decisions, management practices for localized ecosystems, pollution mitigation efforts in international water quality agreements, and so much more! This field links earth sciences to real-life environmental practices and the connections people share with landscapes every day.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

Our research projects start by collecting sediment samples at the field site of our study area. These samples are usually sand within river channels or cores of sediment from within bodies of water. We transport the samples back to Carnegie in Oberlin and count them in our germanium gamma-ray detectors to measure isotopes that emit gamma radiation. The presence/absence and concentration of certain FRN are telling of sediment movement via erosional processes over the past few decades.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

My Honors project in Martha’s Vineyard differs from other projects in our lab in that it’s considered more of an environmental consulting study. This means that the Vineyard community’s local environmental committee reached out to our lab wanting to know why their salt marshes are infilling, rather than our lab proposing this research study ourselves. I will conduct our FRN analyses and report back to the committee with our findings and guidance. My findings thus far suggest that the marshes are not filling in as quickly as residents have observed, but annual large-scale dredging projects are likely keeping the marshes from completely filling in.

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I’ve presented posters at two annual Geological Society of America conferences in Phoenix, AZ, and Portland, OR. After graduation, I plan to be a contributor on the paper for our project based in southwestern China. I will be the first author on the study for my Honors thesis based in Martha’s Vineyard, which will result in a report to the community who hired us and hopefully a peer-reviewed publication.

How did you get involved in research?

During my stay at Oberlin for “All Roads Lead to Oberlin,” I took a tour of the geology department and was introduced to some of the professors. When I began classes as a first-year, my current research advisor reached out to me asking if I would like to attend a lab meeting. I’ve been a part of the “dirt” lab ever since!

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

My favorite part of my research is collecting samples in the field and interacting with the people and landscape that will be impacted by my research. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to travel to southwestern China and Martha’s Vineyard to collect samples for both research projects I’ve been a part of. 

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

My time working with Dr. Amanda Schmidt has had a profound impact on the trajectory of my career as a scientist. She has allowed me to take the reins in my Honors project while constantly supporting my academic work and personal life. Her mentoring has helped me become more confident in my analytical skills in the lab and science communication skills as I prepare to work in the field after graduation. I’m extremely grateful for her willingness to help me grow as an established professional and connect me to her network of highly-regarded geologists.

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

 I have made an immense number of professional connections because of our lab’s collaborations with other geology departments across the country and from presenting my research at Geological Society of America conferences. Because of my experiences on and off of Oberlin’s campus, I feel vastly more confident in my abilities to become an established earth scientist and make a lasting impact in our era of the climate crisis.

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

Reach out to that professor! Write those cold emails! Geology is an amazing field with so many opportunities for anyone interested in earth or environmental science. The geology department at Oberlin, as well as the geology field in general, is so welcoming to anyone who’s interested in knowing more about our earth and offers a community to those who are passionate about science that makes tangible impacts.