When she was just five years old, Samantha McComb ’20, found herself staring through a glass case at a beautiful purple amethyst geode at the New York State Museum in Albany. The following day, she mentioned how much she liked the sparkling crystal-lined rock and her mom drove her back to the museum’s gift shop to buy it. Unfortunately, it was gone, and the young McComb was devastated. However, what she didn’t realize was that the museum was also hosting the annual James Campbell Memorial Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show that day.
“The top floor of the museum was full of vendors and geologists with rocks as far as the eye could see. It was like Christmas morning. After walking around for over an hour, I came across this amazing amethyst geode, about five times the size of the one I saw the day before. To this day, that 13-pound geode is my prized possession. Ever since then, I have been going to that show every year. That event sparked my love for geology,” McComb said.
After taking an earth science class in high school she was even more convinced that she should pursue a career in geology. Her next step was choosing the right university. During her junior year, she reached out to Dr. Michael Rygel, the chair of SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Geology, to inquire about class offerings, the strength of the department and the fate of alumni after graduation. Rygel took the time to paint a picture of life at SUNY Potsdam and the opportunities in the geology department. He also discussed the success of alumni like Erin Wagner ’13, who went on to work for Exxon Mobil.
McComb was sold!
“Pursuing a degree in the geology department at SUNY Potsdam is probably the best decision I’ve ever made. I would not have gone anywhere else. I had a full ride to Oswego, but no one could beat Dr. Rygel. I just kind of figured out that this is where I was meant to be."
McComb found her home at SUNY Potsdam, as well as support from faculty who shared her passion for geology and who put students first. “My favorite professors have to be Dr. Quinton and Dr. Rygel, without a doubt. They’re always there for questions, you can always find them in the department. They’ll be working on something else and they’ll immediately put it down to help me with homework or answer a question that I might have. They’re very good at explaining and they give real-life examples about what we talk about in class,” she said.
Her favorite part of geology is the deep, critical thinking needed to look at a sequence bed and think backward to answer important questions about rock formations. “How did this get here? Why did this happen? What is older? The story that the rocks tell you, that’s the part that interests me the most,” she said.
Last summer, just after finishing her freshman year on campus, McComb had the chance to conduct field research with senior Brandon Keough ’18, who was working on his Presidential Scholars project at the Clifton Formation in New Brunswick. While in Canada, she was tasked with hiking up the cliffs and describing the rock stratigraphy for Keough’s project. She was awestruck, as she walked along the shore with the ocean on one side and an enormous cliff on the other—one of the most unique land formations she has seen to date. “I got to see what it was like to be a geologist in the field. Something about it just roped me in! Being able to help him with his project made me realize what I really wanted to do,” McComb said.
A trip with the Geology Club to the Bear Valley Strip Mine in Northumberland County, Penn., gave her another opportunity to explore a unique geological formation with rock layers clearly exposed due to previous coal mining. She also saw an anticline for the first time, in which horizontal layers of rocks are compressed, creating something that resembles an upside-down bowl. “I had never seen that before. It’s one thing when you’re drawing it in class or seeing pictures, but it’s another thing when you see it in real life,” McComb said.
Her next big adventure will be in Montana this summer for the Indiana University field camp—an intensive geology field school where Rygel and Quinton will both be working as instructors. After long days in the field, working around 52 hours per week, she will take Sundays to pursue her own Presidential Scholars Project—a carbon isotope analysis of the Madison Group carbonates. With the help of her professors, she will be collecting the carbonate samples—which will be drilled, powdered and cut into thin sections for carbon isotope analysis—and then create a stratigraphic sequence of the Sappington section that will help interpret changes in sea level and the historic deposition environment.
“The goal is to further our understanding of carbon isotopic values and global events. The Late Paleozoic Ice Age is an important factor in understanding how global and local events influence carbon isotopic values at this specific location. My project will also document the role that sea level, paleogeographic location and depositional environment play in local carbon cycling,” she said.
One of the hurdles of attending the field camp and doing research in Montana is that it’s very expensive; the field camp alone costs $7,000. McComb is proving to be not only a motivated young geologist, but also very business savvy by applying for grants. She was recently awarded a $1,500 grant from the Geological Society of America to pay for her research analysis. She also received $750 from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers to help with transportation costs to Montana, $425 from the Erin Wagner ’13 Field Camp Experience Scholarship and $1,800 through SUNY Potsdam’s Presidential Scholars Program for her research.
Before heading out west, she is wrapping up her sophomore year at SUNY Potsdam and learning valuable skills in the classroom for her upcoming trip. She is currently taking Sedimentology, Introduction to Paleontology, and Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology—just three of the course offerings that students can take while pursuing either a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree in geology or one of the newest majors on campus, a Bachelor of Science degree in geographic information science.
For more information about SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Geology, please visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/majors/geology.
Article and photos by Jason Hunter