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Researcher of the Month

August 2011

Jerome Varriale 

Geology Major, Class of 2013

Research Mentor: Dr. Timothy Glotch, Dept. of Geosciences 


It's hard to believe Jerome Varriale has been a Geology major at Stony Brook for less than a year. For his first semester GPA at SB, he was recognized at the Office of Commuter Student Service's Annual 4.0 Academic Achievement Reception; in spring 2010 Jerome joined the Vibrational Spectroscopy Laboratory of Prof. Timothy Glotch, and in April had amassed enough data to present a poster, "Thermal emission spectroscopy of volcanic rocks from Mauna Iki, Hawaii" at the annual campus-wideURECA poster symposium (April 2011). This summer, Jerome's research on infrared emissivity spectra of rock samples is supported by URECA. Using spectral deconvolution models to analyze the data and determine the mineralogy of volcanic rock samples from Hawaii, Jerome is now comparing laboratory and remote sensing data to further our understanding of the role of alteration coatings on the samples, and more generally, our understanding of the reliability of remotely acquired infrared spectra.

VarrialeatURECA2011What is obvious from even a brief conversation with Jerome is that he loves studying Earth Science! He is passionate about the conservation of fresh water resources, and enjoys the rich array of coursework in Geosciences at Stony Brook as a returning student, planning eventually to pursue a Ph.D. in the field. And yet, for the past half a dozen years, prior to coming to Stony Brook and to completing an associate's degree in Business Administration (May 2010) from Suffolk Community College, Jerome had worked full time in hotel management and sales; he'd even interned at Disneyworld, FL and Adventureland, NY. Jerome recounts a decisive moment when he decided to change his career path: "I told my wife, 'I’m really not happy with anything I’ve done so far. I feel like I’m not contributing to society. I’m making money but…money is only one aspect of life.' She agreed that I should go on to follow some dreams I had ... getting back into Earth Science. We sold our house, moved in with her parents – and I’m here now. . .And it’s going really well!"

JeromeVarrialeJerome Varriale was born and raised in Long Island and attended Half Hollow Hills High School West - where he has happy memories of his 9th grade Earth Science class with Mr. Engeldrum. His hobbies include hiking, camping, running, mountain biking, playing Frisbee; volunteering with his church; and spending time with his two dogs. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: What's your research about? 
Jerome: I’m studying alteration coatings that are on basaltic volcanic rocks from Hawaii. My lab, the Vibrational Spectroscopy Laboratory, studies the surface of Mars, and the Moon. Mars is mostly basalt—at least the crust.  Why I’m studying the alteration coatings is: we’re trying to understand how the coatings on the rocks affect the interpretation of remote sensing data. Our goal is to compare laboratory and remote sensing data in an effort to understand the reliability of remote sensing data. If we can understand how those alteration coatings affect that remote sensing data, we can then translate that to understanding remote sensing data on Mars.

So what’s the process? What do you do? 
We use thermal emission spectroscopy. There are a couple of different tools we have in the lab, including an FTIR spectrometer. We heat up the rocks. When the rocks are heated, we can measure that energy emitted. Each mineral that’s in a rock has its own unique emissivity spectrum. And even though there’s a bunch of different minerals in a rock mixed together, we can un-mix them and see exactly what that rock is composed of. For my current project, I have ~30+ samples. For each rock, I generally do 3-4 scans. I would generally do both sides, or if there’s some unique feature on the rock (let’s say there’s an orange colored feature), I would also get a spectrum of that; and then an interior (or maybe 2 interior) scans. That could take an hour to two hours per sample.

When did you first join the Glotch lab?  How did you get started in this work?
I came to SB as an Earth Science major. When I told my advisor that I was interested in going on to graduate work, Prof. Gil Hanson told me that it’s “very very important” if you eventually want to get into a PhD program to have research experience. At that time, I was taking a course with Prof. Glotch —a 100 level course about the Earth. I also had been to one of his talks.  And I just really liked him; I related to him. So I asked him about doing research. He told me what his lab does. And he said he’d be happy to have me. I then started working in his lab last spring.

That’s great how it worked out!
I feel very fortunate. Prof. Glotch is an incredible mentor.   He never refuses me time when I need help with something, whether that’s understanding some aspect of my research or just a general question about college. A few times I’ve gone to Prof Glotch with a question and he’ll say, “Find a paper and read about it.” It’s not because he doesn’t want to help me. He’s doing that to teach me how to find answers on my own, or formulate better questions. Other times I’ll ask him something, and he’ll give me positive feedback that I’m really understanding what I’m doing, just based on the questions I’m asking. …He’s helped me a lot, with everything. Anything that’s related to school, he’s there!

What do you find most exciting about the work in the lab?
After I’d go through this process of scanning, and go home for the day, I’d think: “I can’t wait to run the deconvolution model tomorrow. See what it’s composed of. Is it going to be silica? Is it going to be different?” …I remember with one rock sample– it looked like it had salt crystals on it. And it turned out it was gypsum. Totally different than anything I’d found at that point. That was exciting.

Does the work ever get frustrating?
Sometimes it can get tedious, a little monotonous. Prof. Glotch tells me though that you just have to keep remembering the broader picture: that understanding the coatings on these rocks could lead to a better understanding of the surface of Mars.

Did you have any coursework related to the research, coursework that helped prepare you? 
Not really. The one thing I did not expect with doing this research is learning how to use all this technology. Reading manuals. Learning to use the equipment we have, learning lots of new software. All the software that I run my modeling (deconvolution modeling) on is LINUX based. I had to learn how to use command line. Prof. Glotch gave me a LINUX for Idiots  book to get started… I never knew initially as a geology major how important computer science would be for my work.

Prof. Glotch just recently got a new piece of equipment that can acquire spectra in the visible and near infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. He kind of gave me that responsibility – to learn the ins and outs of the new equipment. So now that I’m finished acquiring spectra in the mid infrared range of the spectrum, I’m moving on with my samples to the visible and near infrared. And I can show others how to use the equipment now too.

Do you find that there's a big learning curve with your work in the lab?
In a way, the repetition is an aid. When I scan a rock, the software spits out graphical data. Some type of a line. At first the lines looked like lines—like nothing. But every peak and valley is a signature of a specific mineral. The more you look at them and run your deconvolution models, and start working with it, the more you start learning what a peak (let’s say 1100 wavenumbers) might mean. As monotonous as I said the work could be, the repetitiveness of it is probably how you learn the most, actually.

Did you come to SB knowing you wanted to do Earth Science?
I graduated from Suffolk Community with an Associates in Business. Something totally different. While working towards my associates degree in Business, I worked in the Business field for about 6 years. And I did an internship in Disneyworld. And that really turned me on to hospitality. I was a manager of a couple of hotels, then I was doing sales in a furniture business, and then I decided…. I’m really not happy with anything I’ve done so far. I’m making money but…money is only one aspect of life. I talked with my wife, and we agreed that I should go on to follow some dreams I had –which was getting back into Earth Science. It was something that I was interested in during high school, and I just kind of got away from it. It ended up we sold our house, moved in with her parents – and I’m here now doing my Geosicences degree. And it’s going really well! . . .Being able to get the summer research stipend from URECA – that was really great too, a real help. With that stipend, I was able to really focus on what I wanted to do.

That’s the purpose of the URECA summer grants– to allow you to have intensive summer research experience. It is different working in the lab during the summer, isn't it? 
It’s a world of difference! During the semester I'd spend maybe 8 hours a week or so in the lab. Now it’s ~30-40 hours a week. Not only just spending time in the lab but having more time to do reading related to my research work, and to gain more knowledge.

Do you learn a lot from being around the grad students?
Definitely! Working alongside with grad students in Tim’s lab is great because I can see exactly what a grad student does on a daily basis. We also meet together every week, on Wednesdays. We get to all hear what we’re doing, what we’ve done the past week. It’s good to get together for those weekly meetings because there are many times when our needs overlap. Maybe one student is familiar with something that another student is not – and one student can help another. 

What do you think you get out of doing research that you don’t get from your classes? 
As important as classroom knowledge is, you learn in a different way from doing the research. Sometimes you see that you can pick up whatever you need to know by reading about it in a book or scientific paper. What’s also important is that you get to see if you like what you’re doing. If you’re a first or second year Geology major, maybe you have no idea what being a geologist means. If you do research, you can see what being a research scientist is all about. 
Also, the experiences I had of making a poster for the URECA Celebration, writing an abstract, and then applying for the summer research program. . . . those are all valuable experiences, experiences that will help me prepare for grad school.

Was the poster you presented at the URECA symposium in April your first presentation?
Yes. And I really enjoyed it. Seeing what other people are doing at the undergraduate level was a little intimidating- especially seeing some of the advanced biomed projects. That made me want to step up my game! At URECA, I had a lot of people coming by, asking about my project. Chemists use spectroscopy a lot to identify compounds and other things, so some of the chemistry students understood what I was working on. Some had no idea…That was good too in a way because trying to explain what you’re doing can sometimes help you learn what you’re doing.

Can you remember when you first got really interested in earth science?
In high school. I had an excellent earth science teacher, Mr. Engeldrum, in 9th grade. I was really into it.

Any advice to other students?
One of the opportunities that we have here at Stony Brook is the undergrad research. If you’re a science major, you should definitely be taking advantage of it. You get real world experience, something you get to put on your resume.  Also take advantage of the classes offered in your major, not only the required ones. I’ve had great teachers here. Professors Timothy Glotch, and Troy Rasbury…I had a really good class recently with Steven Jones, former CEO of Suffolk Co Water Authority. He was extremely enthusiastic about tap water. It was cool to learn from him. I’m looking forward to taking field geology with Prof. Davis this fall. I also want to take groundwater hydrology, maybe do some kind of field camp next summer.

Do you feel you have a much different perspective as a “returning student”?
Yes, big time. I used to think I had no time to do anything. With any project or even homework assignments, I’d be so overwhelmed.… It can still be overwhelming. But managing your time is so much easier with a little maturation I guess!

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