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Researcher of the Month

October 2018

Alexander KlingAlexander Kling

Geology major, Class of 2020

Research Mentors:  Dr. Timothy Glotch (primary), Dr. Deanne Rogers, Dr. Troy Rasbury, Geosciences;  Dr. Denton Ebel, American Museum of Natural History

“I’ve learned so much more in the lab than in my classes, I think, because it’s hands-on learning. For me, I find that I retain information more from doing research. Hands on experience will always stick more than lecture material because you’re applying what you know,” reflects Alexander Kling, a junior majoring in Geology (class of 2020).

Alexander Kling initially got to know the Geosciences department at Stony Brook as a high school participant in the summer GeoPREP program where he had the opportunity to conduct a mini-research project with Prof. Gil Hanson. Early on as an undergraduate at SB, Alex had the opportunity to join a research project under the direction of Prof. Troy Rasbury and Dr. Steven Jaret on U-PB ages for zircon from SBU campus loess: this project involved hand-picking zircon grains using an optical microscope and tweezers, and then operating a mass spectrometer coupled with a laser ablation system in order to determine their age and the source of the sediments. Alex presented this project at both the URECA campus symposium, and the 24th Conference on Geology of Long Island and Metropolitan New York, in April 2017.

In summer 2017, Alex began working primarily under the mentorship of Prof. Timothy Glotch in the Vibrational Spectroscopy Laboratory where he has joined the “Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration" / RIS4E TEAM, and gained experience in preparing samples and taking spectra measurements of powdered mineral mixtures using various spectroscopic tools. Alex was additionally involved in the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission project (working with co-PIS, Profs. Timothy Glotch and Deanne Rogers). Last April, Alex presented one of the Glotch lab projects titled Temperature-Dependence of Visible to Near-Infrared Spectral Properties of Minerals under Simulated Airless Body Conditions at the URECA campus symposium (April 2018); as well as at the NASA Exploration Science Forum in California (June 2018).  Alex also collected data and was named a co-author on a paper that was recently accepted by the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, titled MGS-TES spectra suggest a basaltic component in the regolith of Phobos {SSERVI Publication # SSERVI-2018-045}. This past summer, Alex participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he worked under the supervision of Dr. Denton Ebel to make x-ray maps of meteorite thin sections and conduct image analyses on them. Long term, Alex plans to pursue a Ph.D. in geology (planetary).

At SB, Alex is currently serving as a Resident Assistant for Campus Residences and as secretary for the Undergraduate Astronomy Club. He is a graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in NYC. His hobbies include: tennis, table tennis, creative writing, drawing, hiking and cooking. Below are excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview:

KarenTell me about how you first got involved in research at Stony Brook.
Alexander. So it goes back to high school. I participated in this program called GeoPREP – a summer research program to get high school students involved in geosciences. I did that the summer after both freshman and sophomore years of high school. My first summer, we got exposure broadly to different fields within geosciences; and the second summer, I was able to do an individual research project looking at soil pH on campus. That was with Prof. Gil Hanson.

So your interest in geosciences goes back a few years!
Yes, I’d say it actually goes back to 8th grade when I took Earth Science. I still remember my teacher, Mr. Thompson, who I believe was a graduate of SB …He's the one who really spurred my interest in the field! 

Tell me about getting involved in research as an undergraduate.
It’s something I was set on – even before orientation. In my first semester, I had a class (GEO 102) with Prof. Tim Glotch and I knew even from the first class that what he was talking about – planetary geology – was something I really wanted to do. So soon into the semester, I went to him and asked if I could do research with him. He told me to come back when I have more experience. I asked other professors that semester as well about research opportunities – but no one was really looking for anyone at the time. So when the fall semester ended, I thought no one wanted me, and that I’d have to wait a bit longer before getting involved….But then over the winter break, I got an email out of the blue from Steven Jaret (a graduate student at the time, co-advised by Profs. Glotch and Rasbury) that said: “I heard that you were looking for research. I’m looking to take on an undergrad for a certain project. Your name was given to me by Gil and Deanne.”  And I remember thinking, even though it wasn’t planetary geology, that it sounded interesting and would be great experience. So I met with him and we started working on a project in the spring. And other opportunities kept coming up from then on.

What was that first project about?
That project involved looking at zircons found within the loess on campus – analyzing zircons to determine their age (and source). I ended up giving a small talk on that project at the Long Island Geologists Conference. And I presented the final results at the URECA Celebration that spring. Then after the semester ended – when I met again with my advisor, she mentioned that Prof Glotch might be looking for someone. So when I talked to him at this stage, he said “you’ve got the experience now. You’ve had minerology (Geo306). You’ve done research – I think you’re ready.” So I started working with him – and I’m still in his research group, the Vibrational Spectroscopy Laboratory.

Although I didn’t plan to actually start doing research with him until the fall semester, just two days after coming home for the summer, Prof. Deanne Rogers emailed me about another proposal that she and Prof. Tim Glotch were working on – for the OSIRIS-REx mission. So I started working on that project which involved spectroscopy of minerals. Some of it was grueling work, and I was commuting in from NYC each day, but it was worth it and it gave me the experience I needed for the project that I would begin working on in the fall which was also spectroscopy work –for a different project, one that involved temperature dependence of visible to near infrared spectral properties of minerals. Most of the work for that project got done in the fall 2017 semester, but I ended up finishing some of the data analysis in the spring – and then presented it at the URECA Celebration this past April. I also had the opportunity to present a poster on it at a conference this summer in California: the NASA Exploration Science Forum.

That’s exciting! Was it helpful to have had previous experience presenting a poster?
I definitely think so. It was a good rehearsal for knowing what to expect. The main difference with going to the conference in CA and presenting at URECA was the audience. At URECA, not everyone is a geologist and so you have to explain your project more broadly. But at the NASA conference, I got some very specific questions – they could pinpoint one small thing in your data. Everyone at the conference knew the topic much better than I did!

Tell me about some of your other research projects.
The OSIRIS-REx proposal got accepted in late November/December. So starting last winter, I stayed on campus and began working on the OSIRIS-REx project from the winter into the spring. I also got assigned, along with another student, Dylan McDougall, to work on another side project – that involved a lot of data collection for a paper that Prof. Glotch was writing. And then this summer, I participated in an REU program at the American Museum of Natural History, working with Dr. Denton Ebel —basically making x-ray maps of meteorite thin sections and doing image analyses of them. 

You have done quite a range of research projects. How have these experiences augmented your education?
I’ve learned so much more in the lab than in my classes, I think, because it’s hands-on learning. For me, I find that I retain information more from doing research. Hands on experience will always stick more than lecture material because you’re applying what you know. You’re learning on the spot. You really need to know what you’re doing whereas if you take a lecture – once you’ve taken your final, the material sometimes goes out of your head.

When I took my minerology class for example – I thought I was done with it after the final. (It’s probably the most important course in geology!) But in doing the research, I keep having to refer back to it.  So a lot of the information is sticking more now – because through the research, I’m going back to that information, and using that information.

What is it that you most like about research environment?
I’ve always been interested in discoveries related to space…to being on the forefront of human discovery. Discovering new things is really amazing. Every paper is new information and I find that really interesting and exciting. I want to discover more. That’s why I want to study Mars & other bodies in the solar system – to learn as much as we can that we don’t know now and expand our knowledge of the universe.

One of my favorite parts about being in the summer REU program at the American Museum of Natural History was that I got to see their entire meteorite collection. I got to hold pieces of Mars..Martian meteorites…lunar meteorites…I got to hold some of the oldest material in our solar system. That kind of gave me a feeling that, Wow! I’m not on the periphery any more. I’m getting closer into the mix of it. I’m into the thick of research now.

What’s your ultimate goal?
I’m planning to try to jump straight into a PhD program after I graduate. I know I want to do planetary geology… In terms of a specific project for my PhD, I’m not exactly sure yet what I will do but I definitely want to stay within the planetary geology realm. That’s definitely holding my interest.

Have your research experiences  helped prepare you for graduate school?
I definitely think so. I know the amount of work that is needed to go into a project. I know what it takes to construct a project and the time it takes to even just start a project. Sometimes, like with our OSIRIS REx project, it took us months just to gather minerals from distributors and collectors and buyers before we could start on the actual project. I also have learned a little about the funding process and how that works. And I’ve seen how the advisor-advisee relationship works or doesn’t work. I think that will help me once I’m applying to schools with knowing what to look for when it comes time for me to pick my own advisor, knowing what advising style will work for me.  

The graduate students within my research group who I’m in contact with have also been very helpful about giving me advice about what classes to take.  I’m taking a class right now – linear algebra – that isn’t required for the gelology major but that they recommended I take because it is super useful for data analysis.  Statistics is another area that I want to work on. Processing the data is one part of research; understanding it is a whole other ballgame. That’s what I want to work on more now.

With your various research projects, what are some of the challenges?
In all the research projects I’ve done, there are tedious points that are at the bottleneck. Just look at my first project -- picking zircons with tweezers. I ended up picking over 150. And they were hard to find! You’d be staring at a microscope wondering: Is that zircon? Is this? ...Sometimes the work required a mind-numbing focus.

Even this past summer with the meteorite project – there was a stage of the project that was pretty tedious where I would be drawing objects over and over. Using Adobe Illustrator – I would circle all the objects I could see in the meteorite thin sections to categorize whether it was a whole chondrule, a partial chondrule, opaque, etc. And it could be very repetitive, even when you could visualize that you were making progress. I think that when you’re doing the work for a project, it’s important to know the end goal and to keep in mind what the purpose of it is. If you know how this is fitting into the project as a whole and why it’s important, it will help you keep your motivation for the research project.

When you look back, can you see how you’ve developed as a researcher?
I’ve realized that I’ve learned a lot. Sometimes you learn from the mistakes you make. Or sometimes, from just doing things again and again. …As far as preparing a presentation, I look back now at that first poster I made for URECA and I don’t really like it. It’s still hanging on the floor of Geosciences. There’s so much extra space, the color scheme is weird…my poster this year looks so much more professional.

What advice would you give to an incoming student?
Definitely I would give them the advice I got from Prof. Hanna Nekvasil that I got from her lecture, “Becoming a Scientist” at the admitted students day. If you’re interested in research, go onto the department page. Look at what the professors are doing and go talk to them. Reach out to your professors and ask about opportunities. Even if they are not able to pull you onto the main project, they may have side projects. It’s important to let people know you are interested in getting involved. This is the main way to get experience. It definitely worked for me.

I want to pay it forward – to get other students involved as well. Because I think research is an amazing way to get experience within your field. It will help you in the long term. If you do well, it could lead to a letter of recommendation. Faculty will recommend you for research positions or for grad school if they see that you do good work and have trust in your work. I truly think research is some of the best experience you could have as an undergraduate.

Are you taking classes that you’re excited about this coming semester?
One class I’m excited is a graduate course offered by the department – GEO 533. Geochemistry of the Terrestrial Planets. That’s taught by Prof. Scott McLennan. It’s exciting working with him because he does a lot of Mars mission work and is so knowledgeable…and also because of the difference between undergrad and graduate course structure. It’s not teaching for a test as some undergrad courses are. It’s learning information that we are all interested in and want to learn….Another class I’m excited about is Journalism 365: Talking Science. It’s unconventional – using theatre and improv tactics, and the Alan Alda method to become more effective as a speaker. Super important for doing research is being able to convey it. I’m really looking forward to taking it.

What is one of the high points of doing research so far?
There was a side project that Dylan and I did a lot of work on to collect data last spring. At the time we were working on it, it was a lot of grueling work and we had no idea it was going to take as long as it did. But we got the data, and Prof. Glotch made us co-authors on the paper that resulted from it. We just recently learned that it was accepted in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Seeing that Prof. Glotch appreciated and trusted our work – that was really rewarding. That meant a lot.