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Northwest Missouri State University

Student Spotlight

    Nov. 30, 2012

    Northwest geology student goes underground for research

    By Philip Gruenwald, media relations assistant

    When senior Travis Doughty graduates from Northwest Missouri State University next summer, he will enter the geology field with something few other undergraduates have: nationally published research on a groundbreaking pilot study.

    Through his research, Doughty, a geology major from Cleveland, Mo., sought to discover differences in heavy metal composition between urban and rural caves by testing their sediment for heavy metals. He joined his advisor, Dr. Aaron Johnson, associate professor of geology, in multiple cave explorations during summer 2011 around the Springfield plateau. They knew their research was the first of its kind.

    “If you try to look up anything about cave sediment research, you will hardly find anything,” Doughty said. “Most people come under the notion that anything that has come into a cave was brought in by ground water, when in reality you can have several mechanisms, such as minerals present that are hosted by the rock body itself that could be dissolving itself and leaving behind trace metals.”

    After Doughty and Johnson collected 158 bags of sediment samples, pounded them into a powder consistency in a Northwest lab and tested their elemental components, they discovered a trend: Any cave with high peaks of manganese and zinc had little or no cave life in it. Caves with low peaks of manganese and zinc had abundant cave life.

    Doughty’s original intention, determining mineral differences between urban and rural caves, was inconclusive. However, he is excited by the unanticipated findings about cave life and thinks they will lead to more research next year.

    “This brings up the question of ‘Why do we see what we see?’” Doughty said. “All we did is scratch the surface. We have no idea what’s underneath it. We just noticed a relationship. And that’s what this continued research is going to do – just investigate it further and open up new possibilities.”

    Doughty’s paper, "Heavy Metal Chemistry of sediments in Caves of the Springfield Plateau, Missouri-Arkansas-Oklahoma: A Link to Subterranean Biodiversity?” was published in “The Compass: Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon.” It is the second article written by a Northwest student published in The Compass this year; student Jessica Walter's research of dolostone rocks and a diabase intrusion at the St. Francois Mountains in southeast Missouri was the first. Doughty's research also is the most-downloaded article on “The Compass’” website.

    “Travis’ paper provides more questions than it does answers, and that’s great research,” Johnson said. “This definitely set the groundwork for another study.”

    Since getting published, Doughty presented his research at the Geological Society of America gathering, the largest annual gathering of geologists, and the Missouri Academy of Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where his work was judged second overall. Next summer, he hopes to write cave sedimentary research guidelines and protocol for anyone conducting future studies. He and Johnson are awaiting a decision on a proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation that would provide funding for a three-year project in collaboration with Missouri State University’s geology department, so they can follow up with their primary research.

    An undergraduate research grant through Northwest’s College of Arts and Sciences funded Doughty’s and Johnson’s field research, their travels to Springfield and Doughty’s presentations.

    Doughty credits Northwest for giving him the chance to conduct the research and his advisor for guiding him through the process.

    “There’s no way I could have done it without Dr. Johnson, my academic advisor,” Doughty said. “He gives me all the credit, but it was also his brainchild. He’s also the one who got the ball rolling and got us access to the caves.”

    Doughty would have completely missed this exposure if he had not transferred to Northwest two years ago. On a whim, he attended an “Exploring Majors and Minors” fair. He met Johnson, and the two immediately began talking about caves, which Doughty has been passionate about from a young age.

    “(Johnson) said this is pretty much the worst place ever for caves,” Doughty said. “But southern Missouri is the third-richest karst region in the world; the ground under Springfield is like Swiss cheese. We just started talking and it took off from there.”

    Doughty and Johnson consider this research a first step. Johnson anticipates additional partnerships between Northwest and Missouri State, and a joint research project between biology, chemistry and geology faculty at Northwest to analyze cave biodiversity. He remains proud of Doughty, whom he said has taken ownership of this project.

    “Travis is a great example of what our students can do,” Johnson said. “We focus on student success – every student, every day. Well, success in science means getting students out into the field to do research projects.”

    With the published research under his belt, Doughty hopes to launch a career in geological research or mining, which is his second passion. He wants to follow the trends that he and Johnson discovered underneath Springfield and is confident that his experience at Northwest will help him achieve that goal.

    “For an undergraduate to have research published in a peer-reviewed journal is really rare,” Doughty said. “And then to do an oral presentation at a national convention such as GSA and the Missouri Academy of Science, that’s almost unheard of too. I would never have had these opportunities if I didn’t come to Northwest.”

    For more information, please contact:

    Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager | 660.562.1704 | Fax: 660.562.1900

    Northwest Missouri State University
    215 Administration Building | 800 University Drive | Maryville, MO 64468