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Education: Coastal Carolina University: A different marsh walk

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

Geology is quite literally a physical science.

The nature of the work – hands-on, physical labor in varying settings – often means getting dirty. Something students in Dr. Jenna Hill’s marine geology class discovered when they visited Pawleys Island last week.

Slogging through the marsh at Pawleys Creek, the Coastal Carolina University students were knee-deep in muck, covered in grime, and confronted with stifling heat and humidity as they went about the business of collecting sediment samples.

“It’s pretty nasty,” sophomore Holly Hicks said. “There are sinkholes in the marsh and the equipment we use is heavy. It’s hard work just to get yourself and all of our stuff out there.”

“The first time going out is really an experience,” sophomore Karaleigh Leonard said. “You get kind of scared because you’re sinking down pretty far into the mud. But once you get used to that, it’s fun. The work is hard, it’s hot, and you get dirty, but it’s worth it.”

Though her students come from diverse backgrounds, Hill believes that type of dedication is the common thread that ties them together.

“I can relate to them, I was one of those weird people who grew up loving rocks,”

Hill said with a laugh. “Our students are very enthusiastic. They enjoy the outdoors, but it goes beyond that. They want to understand and explore what is out there. And the more you learn, the more excited you get.”

“I grew up going to the beach,” said Hicks, a Virginia native. “I spent a lot of time there. It was natural for me to want to do something where I could work in that type of environment.”

The sediment samples they collected will help paint a geological history of Pawleys Island.

As sea levels change, environments shift. Over time, differing environments will stack on top of each other. By studying the samples, the class will be able to determine the type of environment that was present during a specific period in time.

Samples are collected through the use of a vibracore machine. There are several parts to the apparatus, but in layman’s terms, an aluminum pipe is attached to a motor head which is subsequently connected, via a hose, to a generator. Inside the hose are spinning mechanisms, and when started, the resulting vibration allows the pipe to sink down into the sediment.

Prior to this semester, field work for the class was done in the Murrells Inlet area. Collected sediment samples date back for generations, though the impact of a more recent event, can also be studied.

“You can see the impact of a storm like Hurricane Hugo,” said Patrick Hutchins, a graduate student and teaching assistant. “It’s amazing to see how much sediment was transported in that one day. It’s an amount that can usually require several hundred to several thousand years.”

The marine geology class is part of the marine science program at Coastal Carolina. The backdrop and accessibility of areas like Pawleys Island is a draw for both undergrads and graduate students like Hutchins, who is pursuing his master’s in coastal marine and wetlands studies.

“The area is something that appeals to our students,” Hill said. “We have a number of places and a variety of environments where they can do fieldwork. We have access to beaches, marshes and other wetlands. They can go to these areas for different classes, biology, geology, or chemistry. We want to take advantage of all we have to work with.”

“It never gets dull,” Leonard said. “When I looked at everything CCU had to offer, I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

Another advantage is that after a hard day’s work, it’s nice to have the opportunity for a refreshing swim.

“When we finished [at the creek], we went to the ocean,” Leonard said. “We were all pretty much covered in mud, but we didn’t care. I think we all just wanted to rinse off. We had a good time.”

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