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HU Receives Grant to Expand Geology Lab


Las Vegas, N.M. – New Mexico Highlands University was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to expand its state-of-the-art Paleomagnetic–Rock Magnetic Laboratory, the only one of its kind in New Mexico and southern Colorado.

Paleomagnetic and rock magnetic analysis is a highly specialized tool for characterizing the fossil magnetism preserved in geological materials.

The NSF awarded Highlands $50,156 for an automatic sediment core analysis system, an instrument used to measure the magnetic properties of sedimentary rocks.

“This new instrument will support our ongoing NSF-funded research on the Central High Plains Aquifer that is mapping the subsurface geology of the Ogallala Aquifer,” said geology professor Michael Petronis, co-principal investigator for the new NSF grant. “This addition to the paleomagnetic lab will allow us to rapidly correlate the sedimentary rocks across western Kansas and eastern New Mexico. These data will then be integrated to develop a hydrologic model of the aquifer system.”

Historic declines in the Central High Plains Aquifer have created growing concerns about the long-term sustainability of the aquifer, one of the largest in the world and the primary water source in the eight-state eastern High Plains.

Petronis said the new lab instrument will expand Highlands University’s capacity to conduct interdisciplinary research in terrestrial sedimentary geology, paleoclimatology and hydrogeology.

Geology professor Jennifer Lindline is the co-principal investigator for the new NSF grant. She and Petronis secured the initial 2008 NSF grant to establish the Paleomagnetic–Rock Magnetic Laboratory at Highlands.

This is the fifth NSF grant award since the lab’s inception to build its research capacity, totaling more than $757,000 in federal funding to Highlands.

The new automatic sediment core analysis system can be used for water resource and paleoclimate studies at local areas such as the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge, and Pecos Wilderness Area.

“Current water resource records only date back less than 100 years,” Lindline said. “This kind of new sedimentary information provides subtle clues about the flux and source of sediment over the last 10,000 years or more, giving us a better perspective of environmental and climate records.”

The geology professors said the paleomagnetic lab has greatly increased cutting-edge research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate geology students at Highlands.

“We are using this paleomagnetic lab to train the next generation of scientists in modern laboratory skills using highly-specialized geophysical equipment,” Lindline said. “Mike takes the time to train the students in using the complex paleomagnetic instruments, as well as collecting, reducing and interpreting the data for their research.”

Since 2009, seven Highlands University geology graduate students have conducted their master’s thesis research using the paleomagnetic lab, while more than a dozen geology undergraduates have also used the lab. In addition, five international Ph.D. candidates have conducted research in the lab.

“Establishing the paleomagnetic lab has allowed Jennifer and me to further build national and international research collaborations,” Petronis said. “This has made Highlands the go-to university for paleomagnetic and rock magnetic studies in the American Southwest and beyond.” 

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