Students in the Field: Part 2

After a short hiatus to enjoy the end of summer, we’re back with another installment of our Students in the Field series. This series follows EAS students who have participated in field work that enhances their research experience. In this entry, we interview undergraduate Sage Kemmerlin. Sage accompanied Dr. Andy Newman to Costa Rica this past spring and has been kind enough to share her story with us.

What year are you?

I am about to start my third/senior year.

What was the subject of your research in Costa Rica?

My research in particular is to try to determine the stability or lack thereof of the subsiding western flank of the volcano Arenal.


Getting excited about geophysics research at Arenal! Photo courtesy of Sage Kemmerlin.

What was your role on this trip?

My role was doing whatever Dr. Newman told me to do haha! We spent the first week of our trip in the Nicoya Peninsula, located on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, to complete two main objectives. First, we set up GPS stations for a few days to begin acquiring data for 2016 – this helps Ph.D candidate Tiegan Hobbs with her research on post-seismic deformation in the Nicoya Peninsula. Second, we needed to perform maintenance on and update the memory cards of various seismic stations. Each day we would split up into groups to do these tasks. I found myself setting up and balancing antennas, setting up solar panels, setting up/taking down the GPS, or checking the seismic stations. It varied from day to day.


Placing GPS equipment and seismometers in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Sage Kemmerlin.

We spent the second week at Arenal, located in northern central Costa Rica. Our tasks there included carrying the 40-something-pound GPS units on our backs up the volcano to place them at specific locations. We also did some “reconnaissance” for Dr. Newman. He was curious about the existence of a fault in the area, which he identified as a possible research opportunity, so we drove around looking for ideal spots to place GPS pins. Once these pins were in place, we were able to set up the GPS to begin gathering data.

How did you come to start working with Dr. Newman?

I took the Earth Processes (EAS 2600) class with him in the fall of 2015. On the first day of class he described his research, which I thought sounded fascinating. Later in the semester I went to his office and asked if he had any research that I could help with, to which he replied that he did. He explained some options to me, and I decided that I wanted to work on the Arenal research.


Sage surveys the land at the base of Arenal in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Sage Kemmerlin.

Are you continuing any research with him related to your trip?

Yes, the research I did on the western flank stability at Arenal is ongoing. I worked on it this spring and will very likely continue to work on it this upcoming school year.

Did anything unexpected occur on your trip? If so, how did you deal with it?

Yes, there was one day when everything seemed to go wrong. There was this hill that nobody liked. Getting there required walking through a cow pen and climbing through plants that were covered with ants. If we touched the plants at all the ants would crawl onto us and bite our necks (thankfully no one had this happen to them.) Once we reached the top, we had to work in temperatures that hit 120º F. It was not a site that excited anybody. Several days prior to this particular day, we had set up a GPS unit on the top of this hill, which we then needed to retrieve later.

When we arrived to get this GPS, I didn’t think we were in the right place. It didn’t look right because there had been a fire on the hill – small wisps of smoke were still floating up from the ashes! We climbed the burnt hill to the top and our GPS was completely destroyed. The pelican box it was housed in was nothing but ash. All that was left was the melted batteries and the antenna, which had been knocked over. We deduced that the fire had been a controlled burn by the neighboring villagers, and that it had started at the bottom of the hill and worked its way to the top. It appeared that the fire heated the pelican box until it essentially exploded, causing the antenna to fall over.


The wrong place at the wrong time – remnants of GPS equipment after a controlled burn. Photo courtesy of Sage Kemmerlin.

We collected what we could of our melted gear and took it down. We later brought over another GPS and set it up there so that we would have GPS data for that station.

Would you say that doing research has enhanced your experience at Tech? If so, how?

Yes, definitely. It is really enjoyable to do something with real-world meanings attached to it. I feel like I am actually contributing (or at least attempting to contribute) to the knowledge we currently have. Understanding more about the subsiding flank on Arenal could lead to predictions about the potential for a landslide to occur. That information, in turn, could help save many lives.