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Nurturing the Next Generation of Scholars

Ground-Breaking Discoveries of a Supercontinent

Backtracking to a Fissuring Rodinia

mountainsHold onto your chair. Is the ground moving below your feet? For most of us, this movement is not perceptible, but for UNC graduate student Sean Figg, the thick plates of land that undergird the Earth’s continents and ocean floors are continually moving, usually slowly but occasionally rapidly, as is the case with earthquakes.

Like many graduate students at UNC, Mr. Figg has a drive to learn that has been supported by a faculty member with similar interests. When Mr. Figg first met Assistant Professor of Geology Graham Baird, he knew instantly he wanted to work with Dr. Baird, who had been examining the 600-million-year-old break-up of the supercontinent Rodinia. The research involves the study of plate tectonics, age-dating of rocks, and geo-chemistry, all of which were of interest to Mr. Figg. A research trip to Sweden to conduct field work was also a perk, providing Figg with incredible field experience.

Dr. Baird has studied the Caledonides mountain range in Sweden since 2003. The range was connected to the Appalachians as part of the supercontinent Pangea 300 million years ago. Dr. Baird’s research aims to pinpoint when Rodinia, the supercontinent that existed prior to Pangea, broke apart. Mr. Figg joined Dr. Baird’s research team in August 2010 when more questions than answers about the Caledonides were emerging. This location is presumed to be the original break-up point in the region of Rodinia.

Since traveling to Sweden in summer 2011, Dr. Baird and Mr. Figg have discovered that the rocks in the Caledonides may be older than previously recorded. Some of these rocks had been thought to be approximately 608 million years old. Yet their research on the mountain range suggests these rocks may actually be more than 642 million years old. Age is determined by analyzing minerals in rocks to determine the lead-to-uranium ratio — the higher the ratio, the older the rock.

When Mr. Figg joined the research in the fall of 2010, he spent most of his time gathering background information to determine which age-dating technique would work best given their research questions. He then had to determine how to identify rock samples to fit that technique. There have been only two or three other scientists who have conducted research on the same rock formations. Refinements of these methods are allowing Dr. Baird and Mr. Figg to hone in on the timeframe when the break-up of Rodinia really happened. They hope to be accurate within a few million years — actually a precise estimate and a remarkable achievement in the field of earth science. Such a discovery would show future researchers how to conduct this type of specific geological research.

Even when the research has been tedious and frustrating (making a slide for one rock sample can take him 7-8 hours of preparatory work), Figg reports that it has paid off. The field experience and data collection procedures he learned in Sweden have been highlights of the research. Now, Figg is starting to analyze the results of the samples he collected himself in the Caledonides.

All in all, the research journey has been a motivating experience for Mr. Figg, who has wanted to conduct field research since he was a freshman in high school and began rock-climbing. What’s next for Mr. Figg? More research, of course, further graduate work, and ideally a career as a professor that allows him to continue to ask fundamental questions about plate tectonics and to share his fascination with the next generation of scholars.