Research Rocks

Sometimes, the path to the future can open up in front of you when you least expect it. For University of Northern Colorado geology major Miles Wentland, that path was dusty and rocky, and stretched out under the wide blue sky of Wyoming's Big Horn Basin.

During a summer field course, UNC Assistant Professor Emmett Evanoff took Wentland and his classmates to an outcrop east of Cody and asked if the rugged landscape had been formed underwater (marine) or above water (aiolian).

Miles noted that the rocks were limestone, and as any geology student knows, limestone is deposited in marine environments.

Evanoff suggested Wentland take a closer look, explaining that the limestone in the Big Horn Basin is at the center of a geological debate. It appeared to actually be windblown rather than marine in deposition.Miles Wentland

That got Wentland's attention, and he's been looking closely ever since. "I just got super excited," Wentland said. "It's really fascinating because it goes against everything you're taught in undergraduate geology."

That fall, Wentland took a course in scientific writing, focusing his papers on the mystery of those exceptional pieces of Wyoming limestone. Evanoff pointed out how much work Wentland was putting into the class and suggested turning his interest into a research project.

Wentland began gathering data with trips back to Big Horn Basin. "I looked at the outcrops in detail and took measurements of every structure I could see. I also needed to get elevation data because I'm trying to model it in three dimensions," he explained.

Undergraduate research is a hallmark of a UNC education, and Wentland found that the opportunity enriched his knowledge and his experiences.

"I can safely say I know more about aiolian sedimentology than I did before I did the undergraduate research," he said. "And it gave me the kick in the butt I needed to decide to go to graduate school and study this specific topic, because I love it."

Wentland was awarded UNC's Neal J. Harr Outstanding Geology Student award for 2013 and he's presented his research at several conferences, including the National Conference of Undergraduate Research and the Geological Society of America's national conference . He's also had the opportunity to attend summer field schools in South Dakota and, most recently, studied volcanology in Ecuador.

Wentland said his experiences at UNC—from writing classes to field work—have been invaluable. "The class sizes are small and the professors are great—they want you to learn, and they want you to succeed."

As for future plans, Wentland is still exploring the path that opened up for him in Wyoming, enjoying the opportunity to work in the field. After graduate school his love for fieldwork may lead to a career in exploration for economic resources.

"It's really cool. I'm in one of the most beautiful places in the world studying an outcrop that's just so incredibly fascinating and bizarre that I can't help but be excited about it," he said. "Geology was the right path for me."

- UNC News Service