Mars and the Palouse

Hannah Lambert | Evergreen reporter

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Kellie Wall hated science in high school and took a geology course during her freshman year at WSU only to fulfill a credit requirement.

Since then, she has helped develop a method of detection that can be used to find the presence of water on Mars and encourages students to consider getting involved with research.

When arriving at WSU in 2011, Wall intended to major in communication. During her first semester, she was given the option to choose between two science electives.

“I picked geology just for the heck of it and it turned out to be my favorite class,” Wall said.

Afterward, she switched her major. In Wall’s second semester, Ben Ellis, now a former postdoctoral researcher at WSU, suggested she get involved with research.

“As a freshman, I didn’t even know what that was,” Wall said.

Ellis and former WSU research professor Michael Rowe coordinated the study on the eruption styles of volcanoes on Earth and Mars. Wall was recruited during her sophomore year to start doing the work.

The research, funded by the WSU College of Arts and Sciences’ Grants for Undergraduate Scholars and the NASA Space Grant Undergraduate Scholarship in Science and Engineering, looked for evidence that the presence of water in an environment influences the crystallinity of volcanic rock.

Using an x-ray diffraction machine at the WSU campus, Wall looked at 30 samples of rocks from the Northwest, New Zealand, Iceland and Mount Etna in Italy. The x-ray diffractometer allowed her to see the amount of glass and crystalline material within each sample.

“We wanted to look at a bunch of rocks on Earth from all kinds of different eruption styles where we knew what the eruption styles were,” Wall said. “The main difference we looked for was if it erupted in water or without any water interaction.”

When a volcano erupts without any water interaction, the magma has more time to cool and the rocks end up having more crystalline material. The results are different when water is present, however.

“When you erupt magma through water, it basically flash-freezes it so that all the groundmass material is just turned into glass,” Wall said.

She then compared these results to rocks analyzed by the x-ray diffractometer on the rover Curiosity.

In the area of Mars that Wall and her fellow researchers studied, they did not find evidence that there was any water present during the eruptions. Mars is a big planet, though, Wall said, and collecting more data could tell a different story.

The findings were published this month in the multidisciplinary journal Nature Communications. Wall is the lead author on the study.

“We’re extremely proud of her,” Lisa Shipley, associate director of WSU’s School of the Environment, said. “She got it published in one of the top journals that any Ph.D. or above would be proud to be in.”

Wall worked on the research for the duration of her sophomore year, largely independently, since Ellis relocated to the Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology in Zurich, Switzerland. Rowe is now a senior lecturer at New Zealand’s University of Auckland.

“I’ve worked with a lot of undergraduate students,” Rowe said. “And her (Wall’s) work and work ethic is some of the best I’ve come across, and that’s why this research was so successful.”

During spring break of her sophomore year, Wall met up with Rowe in New Zealand and collected rock samples from Mount Tarawera.

“This is sacred tribal land for the Maori people … so we had this whole tour up to the top and learned about the culture and it was really cool,” Wall said.

She also visited Mount Ngauruhoe, which appeared as Mount Doom in the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

After returning from New Zealand, she presented her research in Houston at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Now, Wall is preparing to graduate in the spring and is weighing her options for graduate school.

“I have a lot of really amazing options available to me and that’s kind of the hardest part is deciding what I want to do and who I want to work with, what kind of project and what location in the world,” she said.

She added that she hopes to see more students getting involved in research.

“(It) has opened up so many doors for me,” she said. “And I think students who really want to get good experience should talk to their professors and see what kinds of opportunities are out there.”