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Sandra Kamo on pushing the boundaries of geologic time

Science Engagement at the Toronto Public Library

With colleagues from the United States and South Africa, Sandra Kamo investigates an extinction event in the rock world from about 252 million years ago. (Photo courtesy Sandra Kamo.)

With colleagues from the United States and South Africa, Sandra Kamo investigates an extinction event in the rock world from about 252 million years ago. (Photo courtesy Sandra Kamo.)

Catastrophic events and mass extinctions are the stuff of Hollywood films and dystopian Young Adult novels. But for the University of Toronto’s Sandra Kamo, they are also crucial elements of Earth’s history that can inform its future.

“I like to push the boundaries of how precisely we can measure geologic time using uranium-lead geochronology, and to determine the ages of minerals on ever smaller quantities of material,” says Kamo, geochronology lab manager with U of T’s earth sciences department. “By increasing the resolving power of our ages we can test geologic theories more rigorously, and by measuring smaller quantities of material, we can tackle problems that we couldn’t attempt before.”

Kamo will deliver a free, public lecture, Catastrophic Conundrums in Earth History at the Palmerston Public Library June 6, as part of U of T’s science engagement program organized by professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics and the U of T president’s senior advisor on science engagement.

U of T News asked Kamo to share some thoughts about her work, the importance of engaging the public in science, and what her audience can expect.

What do you do?
I run a geochronology laboratory in the earth sciences department where we investigate Earth’s geologic history by dating rocks. Ages of rocks are much more than a birth date—they provide us with rates of geologic and biologic processes. Our understanding of the geologic past depends on knowledge of ages and rates of processes. This information can help us to better understand the nature of ancient plate tectonic movements, for example, so that we can reconstruct the assembly and break-up of supercontinents. Precise temporal constraints can also help us to understand how mineral deposits formed, or whether environmental change from asteroid impact events or major volcanic eruptions can be linked to extinction events.

The latter topic is one that I return to frequently and would like to focus more energy on in future. Mass extinction events have occurred many times in Earth’s history and have altered the course of evolution of life on our planet. A more detailed understanding of these significant past events may give us insight into our future.

Why U of T?
Working at a university is a great privilege, no matter what your job is, but to be doing research here among some of the leading international researchers in our field is exciting. I did my undergrad here and loved the energy on campus, the beautiful old buildings, the diversity of the programmes and the many activities available to everyone. I have fond memories of quietly studying in the Medical Sciences library with the transparent floors, and meeting friends at Robarts library to study in a group.

Last June I completed my PhD here. My opinions of this institution may have infected my offspring as my 17-year-old daughter will begin studying life sciences here this fall. After touring several Ontario campuses, she chose U of T, hands down, after visiting Victoria College and hearing about life on campus.

What is field work like?
Field work for a geologist is particularly special, in fact, for most of us it is the reason we chose to study geology in the first place; we wanted the excitement of exploring the outdoors and travelling around the world. I just returned from my fourth visit to South Africa where my colleagues from the US and South Africa met to investigate a unique region of the world that preserves the natural history of the latest Permian period, about 252 million years ago, when the largest extinction event in the rock record occurred.

During each visit, the days were long and physically gruelling, but the group dynamics were excellent so it was always a lot of fun and discussions were stimulating as each person brought their unique expertise to bear upon the problems that we are trying to solve as a team. While I bring high precision geochronology to the table, the others bring proficiency in paleobotany, paleomagnetism, vertebrate paleontology, stratigraphy and taphonomy. Everyone is supportive and so together we are a strong, united, investigative team!

What is laboratory work like?
As much as I enjoy being outdoors, the lab is where new information is being created. Nothing matches the feeling of acquiring data that might help resolve a problem that you are keenly investigating, or that might help to prove a new theory.The desire to be in the lab trumps the desire to be anywhere else when you have samples in the mass spectrometer. This work involves long lonely hours in the lab doing routine tasks, sometimes late into the night, but you will often find someone working here at odd hours, driven by scientific curiosity.

Can you give us a glimpse of what the Toronto Public Library audience can expect?
I plan to introduce the concepts of deep geologic time, how we go about measuring the ages of rocks at U of T, and then provide some examples of on-going research into the causes of past catastrophic events that led to the demise of plants and animals on our planet—and how we can gain an understanding of what caused those events by the precise measurement of the ages of minerals in rocks.

Why is science engagement—outreach—important?
If we wish to have strong support for scientific research from our governments and from society in general, it is incumbent upon us to try to disseminate new discoveries and to explain to the public what we do and why we are so passionate about doing it. I think it is important for all scientists to disseminate their work, but perhaps even more so today for those who study the Earth sciences. Given that human activities are having a profound effect on our present environment, a better understanding of natural processes that led to climate change in our geologic past, for example, could help us to navigate our future.