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Graduate STEM Fellow Profile

Kim Handle

Project Title: City as Lab
Thesis: Taphonomy and Taxonomy of Enigmatic Fossils from the Wheeler Formation of Utah
College/University: City University of New York - Brooklyn College
Research Advisor: Wayne Powell
Degree Sought: M.S., Geology
Department: Earth and Environmental Science
Research Focus: Paleoecology of the depositional setting of Cambrian Burgess Shale type preservation
Teaching Partner(s): Susannah Ceraldi

Description of Research

The mode of preservation of extremely detailed soft-bodied fossils of lagerstatten such as the Burgess Shale of British Columbia has been debated by geoscientists since their discovery just over a century ago. The two main hypotheses currently competing for acceptance are: 1) carbonization of organisms due to the inhibition of bacterial decay and scavenging by local environmental factors such as anoxia and salinity or 2) development of clay templates due to biochemical reactions between decomposing tissue, ions in pore water, and the enveloping mud. The debate has expanded and Burgess-Shale-type (BST) deposits are being compared from site to site across North America and the world. The research seeks a comparative investigation of the Cambrian Wheeler Shale of Utah with findings of the paleoecology in the Burgess Shale of British Columbia and the Kinzers Formation of Pennsylvania. Burgess Shale type preservation has long been considered to occur in anoxic environments though recent investigations have shown that the preservation may in fact be occurring in a hyper-saline environment. Should the ecological setting of the Wheeler Shale differ from that of the hyper-saline community of the Burgess, further research needs to be conducted on additional Burgess-Shale type deposits as preservational methods may be reliant on paleoecology rather than anoxic conditions alone. Numerous samples, containing fossils of possible algal affinity commonly referred to as Morania, are being verified through visual comparison with the Burgess Shale Collection of Charles Doolittle Walcott and samples taken directly from the Wheeler Shale and housed at the U of Kansas and private collections of Robert Gaines of the U of California at Pomona. Potential morphological significance of said fossils will be sought through use of electron dispersive spectroscopy (EDS) and wavelength dispersive spectroscopy (WDS). Trace metal analysis through inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy will be utilized in determining the level of oxygen within the overlying waters at the time of preservation and open up insight into the paleoecological conditions of deposition of the Wheeler Formation. Use of these fossils as a potential indicator of a shifting anoxic zone is ultimately sought.

Example of how my research is integrated into my GK-12 experience

Within geosciences it is our understanding of modern conditions which helps to explain past events and significant ecological settings. Currently I am working with Susannah Ceraldi in an Urban Ecology class, and thus my insights into ancient environments translates well into the modern setting for which our students are invested. Since the Brooklyn College GK-12 project strongly emphasizes a geospatial component, my field and research experience in geology has greatly helped my in translating the importance of geospatial awareness to the students with use of technology and spatial concept comprehension.

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