Geologist Leads Students on a Trail of Discovery

Posted: September 24, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Students collecting sand
Mason students Mikhail Samsonov, Cindy Tselepis and Jill Lepp collect beach sands in Mexico. The sands are being investigated as a natural and inexpensive aggregate source to treat sewage in the region.

By Tara Laskowski

Sometimes playing in the dirt turns up treasure. Last month, Mark Krekeler traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico with three of his students to examine ways to inexpensively protect the area’s environment. The group was looking to improve landfills and sewage treatment in the scenic area, which attracts six million tourists each year.

The Yucatan is one of the most environmentally sensitive places on earth, boasting extensive underground cave systems that stretch for hundreds of kilometers. The Meso American Reef – the second largest in the world and the largest continuous living reef – follows the eastern coast of the peninsula.

Krekeler, a geologist and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, along with students Mikhail Samsonov, Cindy Tselepis and Jill Lepp, went to Mexico hoping to meet two goals: finding inexpensive and environmentally friendly natural materials to save the reef and reduce pollution; and helping the local people develop these materials to build the economy.

Clay for Cleaning

Waste disposal is the number one environmental issue in the region. Constructed wetlands are used to treat sewage, but the materials used in the wetlands are not as efficient as they could be. Sewage, which contaminates local drinking water supplies, also severely damages the coral reef. Waste created by tourists—such as left behind water bottles and batteries—is also a major problem.

Students at rock wall
Mikhail Samsonov and Jill Lepp discuss a limestone outcrop in the Reforma region. The limestone holds the clues to the depositional history of the region.
Photos courtesy Mark Krekeler

During the 10 days the students were in Mexico, they collected clay materials that could be used to absorb pollutants in the wetlands. The most exciting thing about the deposits they found was that the clay, known as palygorskite, had never before been known to exist in that area. This new discovery, as well as the discovery of a rare pink clay thought to contain manganese, was a breakthrough in their research.

“The identification of the clays suggests they may be much more widely spread than previously thought,” says Krekeler. “They may be a major economic resource that is not yet recognized.”

The group explored the region by car and on foot, using GPS to mark the exact coordinates of places where they found geological samples.

Experience of a Lifetime for Students

“There was a lot of hands-on research,” said Samsonov, who remembers well emerging from a sink hole to find himself covered in dirt and dust. “The moment when Dr. Krekeler discovered new geologic deposits of palygorskite was very inspiring to me as an entry-level geologist.”

Meeting some of the locals was another memorable aspect of the trip for the students.

“Our trip to Mexico left an everlasting impression on me,” says Tselepis. “It was the first time that I have ever experienced poverty at a level where people purely existed. While searching for clay deposits, we drove through many small villages in the Yucatan. It was hard not to notice the lack of jobs and schools. Most people lived in homes that were missing walls or even roofs over their heads. Most people were kind and proud to share their Mayan heritage.” 

For Samsonov, the trip was a life-changing experience. He says he realized that his career choice was perfect for him. “I learned that I wouldn’t want to do anything else for a living,” he says. “This trip was the first time in my life that I saw monkeys, toucans, turtles laying eggs, snakes and tarantulas. It was all very exciting. It was a time of my life.”

“I’m glad I got the opportunity to locate materials out in the field that will help construct better wetlands to help preserve the natural surrounding ecosystem and coral reefs,” adds Tselepis.

Krekeler hopes to bring the group back to the area next semester to continue working on the project. The trip was funded by the Center for Global Studies at Mason and Centro Ecológico Akumal, a nonprofit environmental organization.

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