Home » FeatureSpring 2009

Beyond a Rock and a Frozen Place

by Mardy Fones No Comment

Molly Miller makes Earth science come alive, even in the coldest spot on the planet.

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Research camp in the Allan Hills, Antarctica.

A sweet aroma fills the hall outside the Earth and environmental science (EES) lab. The formation of magma and igneous rocks is being demonstrated—Molly Miller, professor and acting chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, is making peanut brittle in the classroom.

“Rocks melt more readily if heated in the presence of water,” Miller says. “So you could add heat to three minerals—represented by the sugar, peanuts and salt in this experiment—and they’d never melt. But add water and the sugar and salt melt at low temperature. The liquid magma—caramelized sugar—is less dense than the crystals—peanuts; if it were within the earth it would move upward.” Miller explains that this represents the basic process by which the Earth became density-stratified, with the less-dense continental crust on top of the more dense material.

Known for bringing Earth science alive, Miller was the 2007 recipient of Vanderbilt’s Chancellor’s Cup. The annual award recognizes a faculty member noted for involvement with students outside the classroom; it honored Miller’s contagious enthusiasm and passion for engaging students in Earth science and in life.

 “We all have two questions to answer about our lives: ‘What do I think is most important and worthwhile to do? And in what style am I going to live as I pursue my goal?’ ” Miller says. “The job of a college student is to learn and use that learning to answer these questions and connect to a broader world.” 

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Miller’s camp quarters.

Rocks and Roots

Although Miller picked up her first fossil as a child and used a book to identify it, she didn’t feel drawn to science. “In fact, I detested it,” she reminisces. “I did a science fair project in middle school about dog intelligence. People who came to the fair one day used the questions I designed to test their dogs’ intelligence, then brought them back to me to grade the next day. It was sort of an anti-science project that confirmed my dog was really smart.

“My teachers were not thrilled,” she deadpans. 

At the College of Wooster, she took a geology class and the foundation of her career was laid. “I like the idea that the Earth is understandable in terms of a manageable number of processes, that there are commonalities and an order as to why things are the way they are,” she explains. Miller was drawn to the millennia-long scale of geological forces and their interactions. “They’re big. They’re visible. Just thinking about things being incredibly old extends your perspective.” 

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Geoscientists and 255-million-year sandstones with coal.

After completing doctorates, Miller and her husband, Calvin, joined the College of Arts and Science in 1977. Originally, the two job shared a teaching position so they could contribute equally in raising their children. “When we were in grad school, we had a vision of how we wanted to live our lives,” Miller says. “With our teaching arrangement, Calvin could spend weeks in the desert, I could do my research and one of us was always at home with the children.” Now both professors of Earth and environmental science, the Millers came on board as full-time faculty once their daughter and son were older.

Polar Exploration

Although Miller is renowned for taking students to explore caves, quarries and fossil sites, her current research finds her in a very forbidding environment: the continent of Antarctica. “I’d done work in Tennessee and other places, but by 1985, I was eager to work where there was more rock and less vegetation, so I turned to Antarctica. There are massive exposures of sedimentary rocks in mountains that stand above the ice,” she says. 

Initially she focused on evidence of ancient life, studying the burrows and tracks left in the rock of the Transantarctic Mountains. In 2003, Miller and her team found the fossilized stumps of an ancient forest that flourished more than 200 million years ago, even though it was near the South Pole. “It’s eye-opening to find such obvious evidence of life in a place that is so lifeless,” she says. She has made eight Antarctic trips and recently led an alumni travel group there.

Miller’s research focuses on reconstructing Antarctica’s past environments and climates to illuminate the Earth’s history.

Miller’s Antarctic research has moved to investigating the life and sediment on the ocean floor just off the coast. Despite the cold water and ice cover, the Antarctic Ocean floor teems with organisms. She and fellow researchers are conducting experiments to determine how the sediment is transported from the continent to the ocean floor in the absence of rivers and deltas, and how animals become fossilized. The results will be used to interpret ancient environmental and climate change recorded in long sediment cores being retrieved from the Antarctic continental shelf. 

Miller thrives in the cold and snow and in the isolated simplicity of fieldwork. Even so, some field experiences still surprise her. 

To gain access to the ocean, a hole is cut through 14 feet of ice. Underwater divers in special gear descend through the hole to reach coring sites and bring back samples. “In November, I was working alone in a tent set up over the hole and I heard this deep, heavy breathing,” Miller says. When she turned around, she discovered that a nosy, 800-pound-plus Weddell seal had appropriated the ice opening as a breathing hole, coming eyeball to eyeball with her. The seal was curious but docile and visited Miller several times before eventually swimming away under the thick ice.

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Miller’s collaborator, John Isbell of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, recording observations at Wahl Glacier.

In the Classroom

Miller’s research focuses on reconstructing Antarctica’s past environments and climates to illuminate the Earth’s history. While her work has implications for global warming, Miller thrives on being a teacher.

“I love teaching,” says Miller, who believes her thirst for education was inspired by her mother. “My mother got her doctorate in experimental pathology at the end of my freshman year in college. She taught me to make observations. I learned about surface tension from watching her make apple pies.”

Miller is intrepid in finding new ways to engage students, once enrolling in a stand-up comedy class to bring a new dimension to teaching. “If you’re going to teach for a long time, you have to have some fun the entire time,” says Miller, who has also employed jump ropes, Silly Putty and Play-Doh to get lessons across. “It’s a challenge to think of new ways to present the material. For every important concept, there’s an undiscovered way to make it crystal clear.” 

photo credit: Daniel Dubois; Antarctica photos courtesy of Molly Miller

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