Sarah VanderMeer

Doctoral candidate in Geosciences Sarah VanderMeer's research focuses on glacial geomorphology, or the study of the earth's shapes and patterns in an attempt to reconstruct earlier versions of the landscape. Working with Dr. Alan Kehew as committee chair and Drs. Robb Gillespie and Bill Sauck of WMU, along with Dr. Walt Loope of the United States Geological Survey as committee members, Sarah plans to graduate in Spring 2017. This summer she plans to hike the entire Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, mapping the landscape. Starting in Fall 2016 she will begin writing her dissertation, the working title of which is "Mapping and Interpreting the Quaternary Geology of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan." 

A photo of Geology graduate student Sarah VanderMeer. Sarah is wearing a purple sweater and tweed skit and is standing in a corner of the third floor of Rood Hall. The corner behind her is made up of two sets of glass windows that meet in the corner which allows the viewer to see out the windows and take in the view of a sidewalk winding throught the center of campus with trees and grass all around, off in the distance you can see Wood Hall.

Geomophology is the study of the shapes and patterns of earth's surface in order to explain the current landscape. Michigan's landscape was sculpted by glaciers eroding and depositing sediment, so it is often termed glacial geomorphology.  This topic has been heavily debated as geologists reconstruct the past by relying on patterns that have emerged from the study of modern deglaciation, which is normally thought of as a negative thing, caused by global warming. Most of the potential processes relate to each other in complex ways to create a "puzzle" that may have numerous potential solutions and few ways to model or simulate ancient conditions. Sarah has found that most people are interested in her topic since "it's beautiful geology that's easily observed, and it's also what people build infrastructure on." Therefore, it is crucial to know what the ground is made of in various locations as well as how it evolved.

According to Sarah, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of Michigan's most scenic and popular parks, but very little is known about how it formed. Her research interest was piqued by the fact that It is the only National Park in the U.S. that does not yet have a detailed surficial geology map. Surficial geology maps characterize the soil and surface deposits above bedrock and are used by park personnel and interested visitors. Her intent is to create a detailed surficial geology map of Pictured Rocks and use that information, along with some subsurface information that she has collected to help reconstruct the glacial history of the area from about 10,000 years ago. Because of the park's large size (43 miles long totalling 115 square miles) and the level of detail that is required to create a useable map, she will be spending a lot of time digging in the dirt to characterize the sediment at many different locations.

It is a challenging task because it appears that the glacier edge oscillated back and forth potentially several times in this area of the Upper Peninsula, and it also seems to potentially represent a suturing of at least 2 different ice lobes (distinct sections of ice that move together). Determining which landforms are with which ice advance coupled with which lobe intrigues Vandermeer because glaciers move over different rock types differently and different climate conditions could influence certain areas of glaciers, but potentially not others.She also notes the requirement to think about how heavy glaciers push the land mass down but when glaciers melt away the land rebounds. This creates a situation where current river flow directions may be directly opposite of water flow directions in glacial periods.

This photo shows Sara VanderMeer interacting with an exhibit in Rood Hall. The exhibit consists of a table that's roughly two feet in width by three feet in length that makes a raised sand box about a foot deep. In the box is a great deal of sand that the visitor can move around with a small scoop. The interesting thing about the exhibit is that it's lit from above with colored lights, and somehow the lights sense the height of the sand and color the sand in different colors according to how high it is piled within the box. This creates a three dimensional representation of a topographical map, and it's fun because one can change the map to one's liking.

According to Vandermeer, “I study geology because I like to know why the earth is the way it is today and how changes have affected various aspects of life. Geology incorporates biology, chemistry, and physics and works to join these natural sciences in order to understand earth’s history as well as promote societal growth. I enjoy learning about my surroundings and incorporating my existence into a broader context. I love the challenge of trying to process concepts so large and/or complex they are difficult to wrap my mind around. Studying geology has allowed me to experience some of the most picturesque landscapes, providing an appreciation of the seemingly mundane daily processes that shape the earth while also fostering a respect for the powerful catastrophes that have left such beautiful signatures.”

Sarah grew up in Holland, Michigan where she received her Bachelor of Science from Hope College. After she graduated, she accepted a position instructing introductory geology labs at a local college and discovered a passion for teaching that she never knew existed. Pursuing a teaching career in geology requires an advanced degree, and while she was initially unenthusiastic about more school, she found herself motivated to contribute more to the discipline as she continued to teach. A combination of family history, proximity, and research opportunities, along with Western’s well-known reputation in teaching led Sarah to choose WMU for her graduate education. Her grandfather was a professor at WMU in the (former) Industrial Arts and Engineering Technology Department, and father received a Master of Arts from WMU. When she discovered that research opportunities within the Department of Geosciences coincided with her geological interests she was hooked. 

Sarah’s immediate future is mapped out with plans for finishing her degree and then entering the workforce. Post-graduation she is flexible, looking at various types of employment within the geosciences, preferably in the Great Lakes region. She intends to apply for teaching and industry positions, as well as post-doctoral positions, and is excited to explore various paths with the experience that she has gained through her graduate work at Western Michigan University.