American Chemical Society funds research – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

American Chemical Society funds research

The American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund has awarded a $28,026 grant to Associate Professor of Geoscience Nan Crystal Arens to test hypotheses of black shale deposition in the late Devonian Catskill Basin of Watkins Glen State Park in New York.  Arens will conduct her research in conjunction with Hobart and William Smith students and professional colleagues at the University of Hawaii and SUNY Geneseo through the remainder of 2009.

Arens’ hypotheses explore three distinct sets of factors that may have contributed to the formation of black shales in an ancient ocean that covered the region about 375 million years ago. The first focuses on how the rise of ancient mountains in present day New England may have influenced sediments deposited here in Central New York.  The second examines climate models that suggest black shale deposition was triggered by changes in global temperature.  The third hypothesis looks at whether black shale was stimulated by the rise of forests as trees evolved, began to shape the terrestrial landscape and influence the nutrients that flowed into ancient oceans.  Each of these hypotheses makes distinct predictions that can be evaluated in the rock record. 


Black shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that is typically deposited in deep ocean basins.  Over the ages, Watkins Glen State Park’s winding stream and 19 waterfalls have carved cliffs more than 200 feet high and exposed ancient layers of black shale throughout the gorge, making it ideal for study.  Research is being conducted in a long, continuously exposed stratigraphic section that is the longest available in the central Catskill Delta. This will allow researchers to distinguish the relative roles of various factors in the black shale formation.  More than 400 samples have already been collected.

Arens noted that the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has been very gracious in  granting research access to the State Park.  In the spirit of collaboration, the Colleges’ researchers have committed to creating an interpretive brochure that will share their results with the public and enhance the experience of visitors to the park.  “There is a true appreciation for the resources and history there and this allows us to give something valuable back to the park and its patrons.”  

Grant funding will support the summer 2009 research efforts of Michael Bloom ’09, who is using this project as the basis for his Honors work.  Additional students will be recruited from the GEO290: Paleontology class or will participate through an Independent Study.  


Bloom’s funding allows him to take part in the 2009 Hobart and William Smith Summer Science program.  This program brings select student researchers together for various summer projects and involves them in a host of activities on campus including workshops on technical writing and graduate school, participation in a mini research symposium and preparation of public speeches and poster presentations.  This ACF grant covers Bloom’s summer stipend as well as the cost of his supplies, field work and travel.  Outstanding funds will provide for the remainder of the project’s supplies, laboratory analyses, field work and related travel expenses. 

Bloom will complete his research by publishing his findings in a high profile article, co-authored with Arens.  He will also have the opportunity to travel to a meeting of the Geological Society of America to present his research results.  The scope and complexity of Bloom’s undergraduate research is being likened to that usually seen at the master’s degree level.  Arens says that research opportunities like Bloom’s are available to all students at Hobart and William Smith who apply themselves. 

“The Colleges,” she says, “are very open to seeing faculty pursue research and study with their students.  Hobart and William Smith are small enough that faculty have the ability to look for resources and opportunities beyond their primary area of expertise in an effort to provide meaningful experiences tailored to a student’s specific interests.  This empowerment and supportive environment isn’t always possible at a larger university.”