Digging for Answers: An Interview with Claire Bucholz

New Caltech faculty member Claire Bucholz is a globe-trotting field geologist studying igneous rocks from the transition between the Archean and Proterozoic eons 2.5 billion years ago, which roughly coincides with a time period known as the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE), when oxygen began appearing in the earth's atmosphere. She hopes to better understand what impact this had on the earth's crust and, in turn, how that may have impacted processes deep inside the planet. A native of Irving, Texas, Bucholz completed her undergraduate studies at Yale and earned a PhD through the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Joint Program in Cambridge in 2016. Recently, Bucholz answered a few questions about her research and the important clues about the earth's deep past that can be found in the rock record.

Can you tell us a little about your work?

I think about the composition and chemistry of igneous rocks from a field-based perspective. My studies all start with detailed field observations and then build up from there with layers of new data from microscopy, mineral and rock chemistry, isotopic analyses, geochronology, and more. Some of the big questions I am thinking about include how changes in conditions and the surface of the earth—for example, the rise of oxygen or the oxygenation of the deep oceans—may have been imprinted on the igneous rock record and how the continental crust is constructed.

How did you get into your field?

My mom jokes that I always wanted to be a "rock scientist" and was filling my pockets with rocks from the time I was able to toddle about. But what really got me excited about geology was a semester abroad in Switzerland in high school. Our science curriculum was geology. We conducted labs sitting on moraines overlooking vast glaciers or observing metamorphic rocks that had originally been part of the sea floor but are now at some of the highest peaks in the Alps. It was a surreal and totally engrossing experience. 

What do you find most exciting about your research?

As my research is based in detailed field studies, I get to travel to some amazing places to observe and collect rocks, then take these rocks back to the lab, analyze them, and synthesize all of the data into a larger picture. This process is a really unique way to connect with a place. It makes you feel a really close connection with the earth.

Why are you excited to be in Southern California?

I have to admit that I thought I made a terrible mistake when I first moved here. It was actually the one place I swore I would never move to. I remember driving over Cajon Pass and down into the Inland Empire in early September into the thick heat and smog. However, I've adjusted and am actually now a complete fan of Southern California. The weather, of course, is great, but the ability to get outside to the beach or to the mountains on the turn of a dime is incredible. There is a wealth of natural beauty here and such a visceral connection with geology that is unlike anything I have experienced in a big city before. 

What do you do outside of the lab?

I mostly try to keep the chaos of my two kids to a reasonable level. However, I'm an avid gardener and have been loving the Los Angeles climate. My family and I also enjoy exploring the San Gabriel Mountains and the coastline during the weekend.

Written by Robert Perkins

Robert Perkins
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