Humans of Beloit: James “Jay” Zambito

Associate Professor of Geology James “Jay” Zambito chats about paleoclimatology, frac sand deposits in Wisconsin, and The Black Keys.

Associate Professor of Geology James “Jay” Zambito was welcomed into the Beloit College faculty this August after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati and spending five years at the Wisconsin Geological Survey with the University of Wisconsin. Beloit News sat down with Jay recently to chat about paleoclimatology, frac sand deposits in Wisconsin, and The Black Keys.

Welcome! How have your first few weeks as a Beloit College professor been treating you?

It’s been going really well. I’ve had a really good time getting to meet the students, faculty, and administration, and I’ve felt very welcomed. [My students have been] inquisitive and creative. I’ve been very impressed with the questions that I’ve been getting in class, and I find that the students are challenging me. It’s very exciting.

Can you tell me about your areas of expertise and your teaching interests within the field of geology?

I look at extinctions in deep time Earth history, hundreds of millions of years ago, and I try to figure out why those extinctions occurred. In particular, I look at climate change that occurred, and I try to understand how ecosystems are affected by changes in climate to understand the rates of climate change in the Earth’s past to get a better grasp on the rates that are occurring today, and how they compare.

Why are those topics important to study or to teach today, especially in light of climate change and other environmental concerns?

You hear a lot in the news about variability in climate, but what I think is not as well understood is that the rates of change are much faster than anything that’s ever occurred in Earth’s history. One of the ways we can use the fossil record, and one of the ways we can use reconstructions of Earth’s history, is to understand that in Earth’s past at a particular rate of, say, temperature change or sea level change, we see [a particular] amount of extinction.

So if we know that that rate is faster [today], then we have some kind of baseline to say, “well, in the past, these types of organisms went extinct, or diversity decreased by this much, so we can expect these types of organisms to go extinct in the future.”

You recently spoke to Discovery Magazine – can you tell us a bit about that interview?

The article being written is on the geologic history of frac sand deposits. Hydraulic fracturing is the process of using fluids and sand to create fractures and extract oil and gas. That typically happens in places like Texas, West Virginia, and North Dakota, whereas here in Wisconsin, there’s not hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, but there is sand that is used in the hydraulic fracturing process, and the sand is being mined here. So that interview was about understanding, “why does Wisconsin have so much sand that meets specifications for use in hydraulic fracturing?”

And why does it?

You have to envision 500 million years ago, when the environment was quite different. At that time, a couple things were going on: this part of North America was closer to the equator, so it was warmer. It was also dryer, and this was before land plants evolved; there were no forests on Earth’s surface [so soils hadn’t developed]. If you don’t have soils, and it’s warm and dry, typically you’re going to get desert environments with large sand dunes being blown around. These desert environments also happened to occur on an ancient shoreline; sea level was higher at that time, so Wisconsin was a giant beach where waves were crashing and you had sand being deposited.

And those beach environments with wave action, as well as desert environments with sand being blown around, they sort sand grains into particular sizes. They make the grains rounded, and they break down unstable minerals. What’s left is primarily the mineral quartz, which is hard, and that’s an ideal mineral for use in hydraulic fracturing because you’re putting the sand grain five to 10 thousand feet below the ground. It needs to withstand the pressure while you overburden all the overlying rocks.

So because Wisconsin was a giant beach and desert 500 million years ago, and sand was deposited in that type of setting, Wisconsin has abundant sand deposits today that are preserved. That’s why this is the primary source of industrial sand in North America.

That’s not a short answer, but you asked a geologist!

We sure did. What are you looking forward to as you make a space for yourself on campus and in the geology department?

Field trips are a big part of geology: We can talk about rocks in the classroom, but you need to get out and see them, and get your hands dirty. We’ve already done one field trip in a class I’m teaching, “Evolution of the Earth,” and the geology department also took a field trip up to Baraboo Hills.

Is there anything you’re anxious about?

It’s a good anxiety, but it’s been a while since I’ve taught some of these classes, so it’s a rapid pace to keep up with the material in order to think of new exercises or new activities that I can incorporate into class, so that the students get the most out of that day.

What does it mean to you to arrive on campus just as Carl Mendelson retires from the geology department after a 36-year stint at Beloit?

Carl had an amazing career, and it turns out I went to graduate school with a number of students that studied under him. For years, I’ve been hearing about Carl, that he’s a great educator and researcher, and [those are] definitely shoes that are too big to fill.

I feel fortunate that he’s going to be around campus occasionally this year, so I get the chance to interact with him, and I’m also very appreciative because he’s taken time to, like everybody here, make sure I feel welcome and help me get set up as I start my career.

Is there anything you’ve seen since you’ve been on campus that struck you as uniquely Beloit? (Or is it too soon to tell?)

One thing is the Native American mounds. I think it’s a very special, very important, very historic feature of campus that you don’t get to see many places. I did appreciate that Convocation opened up with a mention that the campus is ground that is sacred to the Ho-Chunk nation. I thought that that was a very meaningful way to start the school year.

I think another thing that I’ve noticed that is uniquely Beloit for me is the sense of community, not only in the geology department – which I was expecting because this is a very well-known geology department outside of Beloit – but also just on campus. I can’t even count the number of students, both geology majors and those from other disciplines in my classes, who have asked me how am I doing, how am I getting along, how has my first week been? Same with administrators. This is just a great environment. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Finally, we have a fun one: what are one or two songs that have been on rotation for you the past couple of weeks?

I’m a big fan of the Black Keys, so if I have to get something done or I’m racing towards a deadline, I’ll put that on. If I’m in a more relaxed mood, I’ve been listening to Erik Satie lately. That’s been nice, just to help keep me level through the frantic pace of the first couple weeks of the semester.

October 15, 2018

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