Geology professor goes on tour

by Jacqueline Couillard

Millions of years speed by within minutes in a movie created in a University laboratory.
The movie depicts changes in the Rio Grande Rift, an area in New Mexico. Hot springs that had existed for millennia suddenly switched locations when blocks of the earth rotated and layers of lake sediments were rent.
Mark Person, an assistant professor of hydrogeology, and his colleagues make these films. Person leaves on Friday to begin speaking engagements in at least 25 different cities as the 1997 Birdsall-Dreiss distinguished lecturer for the Geologic Society of America.
Person will share his research on visualization and mathematical modeling of fluid flow with professional and amateur geologists across North America.
The University will host the first lecture at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in 110 Pillsbury Hall.
Person said he believes he was chosen to give the lecture series for his area of expertise because his work “represents a new direction in the earth sciences” through using powerful computers to reconstruct past conditions.
“It’s sort of like economic geology meets supercomputers,” Person said. Most often, Person makes models of how geologic changes affect water flow.
Person calls his work “forensic geology” because he uses new numerical methods to reconstruct ancient geologic environments. Then, Person and his colleagues turn the numbers into a “movie” showing geologic change.
“This same flow system was also thought to be related to economic manganese deposits formed in the area a few million years ago,” said Person of the New Mexico site.
Manganese is significant because it is used to make steel, said Brian Mailloux, a master’s student in geology who is working with Person on the New Mexico project.
Mailloux and four other graduate students work with Person in the Gibson Computational Hydrogeology Laboratory.
All research done in the Gibson Lab involves mathematical and visual models of fluid flow.
“We’ve all used computers in our work, and we end up with these cryptic tables, maybe a line here or there,” said William Seyfried, head of the geology department at the University.
The mathematical models Person and his students use represent new ways of organizing data. The visual models display data in a way that is intuitive for people other than just professional geologists.
“I think (visual modelling) is tremendously important from the standpoint of educating people who are non-geologists,” said Seyfried.
Person’s lectures will focus on just those types of things — making mathematical and visual models of how fluid flow changes over millions of years.
Although many disciplines have lecture series to share research information with others, it reflects well upon the University when a member of the faculty is chosen by peers to share cutting-edge research with the nation, said William Seyfried, head of the University geology department.
Person is on sabbatical this term to give his lectures. He will travel by car to each destination where someone called and asked him to speak.
“A lot of people don’t do it that way,” said Person, adding that he looks forward to having the time to enjoy the landscape.