Research at Whitman

At Whitman College, we highly value and support undergraduate research. Whether you work with a Whitman faculty member or you work with faculty at an NSF REU site, a Keck project, or another institution, we are here to offer you guidance on your research project. Each year, we take students to present their work at an international conference. To get a flavor of the type of work that Whitman Students do, check out the partial list on my CV. In addition to working with Whitman professors, many rising seniors apply to work on externally-hosted research projects with the Keck Geology Consortium or at one of the National Science Foundation's REU sites in the Earth Sciences.


Whitman's geology department has access to state-of-the-art facilities and equipment. Here are a few highlights:

  • A Malvern Mastersizer 3000 laser diffraction particle size analyzer (purchased in 2016)
  • A Niton Xl3t GOLD++ portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (purchased in 2012)
  • An FEI Quanta 250 scanning electron microscope with Thermo EDS microanalyzer (from a 2009 NSF award; shared among all Science departments)
  • An Oxford Diffraction Nova X-ray Diffraction System (purchased in 2008; shared with Chemistry and Physics)
  • An Agilent Technologies 7500a inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometer (purchased in 2007; Shared with Chemistry)
  • A sample preparation lab with rock saws, grinders, etc., as well as a wet lab for geochemistry work
  • A 12-station GIS computer lab and 36-inch plotter
  • A sedimentation laboratory with a stream table

Lab and field protocols

If you are a student looking for instruction on a field technique, I am assembling lab and field protocols here.

Current research projects

Paleoclimate reconstruction using paleosols

Soils are formed at Earth's surface by pedogenic processes controlled by rain, sun, and vegetation. Paleosols, or "fossil" soils, can offer an opportunity to reconstruct the terrestrial environment during the time the soil formed. Using element concentrations, clay minerals, and preserved microfabrics in these paleosols, we can attempt to reconstruct ancient soil processes that can tell us about past climate.

Paleosols are not usually preserved in the geologic record. Only environments in which terrestrial sediments accumulate over time, rather than being eroded, allow paleosols to persist. Our area has two such environments: (1) volcanic landscapes where lava flows and tephras accumulated, and (2) Quaternary loess (windblown silt) deposits in the Palouse area. I work on both. As an example, with Kirsten Nicolaysen and others, I led 6-student Keck Consortium project in Summer 2012 to examine paleosols on volcanic materials in northeastern Oregon.

Publications from this project:

  • Bader, N.E., P.K. Spencer, *A.S. Bailey, *K.M. Gastineau, *E.R. Tinkler, C.J. Pluhar, and B.N. Bjorn- stad, 2016. A loess record of pre-Late Wisconsinan glacial outburst flooding, Pleistocene pa- leoenvironment, and Irvingtonian fauna from the Rulo site, southeastern Washington, USA.Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 462, 57–69.
  • Bader, N.E., K. Nicolaysen, *R. Lopez-Maldonado, *K.E. Murray, and *A.C. Mudd, 2015. Extensive middle Miocene weathering interpreted from a well-preserved paleosol, Cricket Flat, Oregon, USA. Geoderma 239-240: 195-205.
  • Bader, N.E. and K. Nicolaysen, 2013. Lavas and interbeds of the Powder River Volcanic Field, northeastern Oregon. In R.J. Varga (ed.) Keck Geology Consortium: Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Annual Keck Research Symposium in Geology. Pomona College, Keck Geology Consortium.

* Undergraduate co-author

Geoscience education

As an educator, I am actively involved in geoscience education research. I am particularly interested in active learning techniques and how they affect student mastery of geoscience concepts. Most of my education research has been with the Project EDDIE team (see the Project EDDIE website hosted at SERC, here. We focused on the wealth of data that is now freely available online from Earth-observing sensors, and how that data can be effectively be brought into the undergraduate classroom.

Publications from this project:

  • Soule, D., R.D. Gougis, C.M. O’Reilly, N.E. Bader, T. Mexiner, C.A. Gibson, and R.E. McDuff, 2018. EDDIE modules are effective learning tools for developing quantitative literacy and seismo- logical understanding. Journal of Geoscience Education 66, 97–108.
  • O’Reilly, C.M., R.D. Gougis, J.L. Klug, C.C. Carey, D.C. Richardson, N.E. Bader, D. Soule, D. Cas- tendyk, T. Meixner, J.F. Stomberg, K.C. Weathers, and W. Hunter, 2017. Using large datasets for open-ended inquiry in undergraduate classrooms. Bioscience 67, 1052–1061.
  • R.D. Gougis, J.F. Stomberg; A.T. O’Hare, C.M. O’Reilly, N.E. Bader, T. Meixner, and C.C. Carey, 2017. Post-Secondary Science Students’ Explanations of Randomness and Variation and Im- plications for Science Learning. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 15, 1039–1056.
  • Bader, N.E., D.C. Soule, D.N. Castendyk, T. Meixner, C. O’Reilly, and R.D. Gougis, 2016. Students, meet data. Eos 97(8), 14–19.

Past research projects

Glacial and tectonic geomorphology of the Mongolian Altai

The Altai mountain range of western and southern Mongolia has been uplifted since the Late Cenozoic by intraplate stresses resulting from the collision of India and Asia. In 2008 I was part of a Keck Geology Consortium project in the Höh Serh Range of the Mongolian Altai, where we worked with eleven American undergraduate students and eleven Mongolian students on research projects in glacial and tectonic geomorphology. Our measurements suggest that about 20% of Indo-Asian deformation in the Mongolian Altai is accommodated along the Höh Serh-Tsagaan Salaa fault zone. The distribution of glacial landforms such as moraines, cirques, and erratics suggests that the regional equilibrium-line altitude has risen about 500 m since the Pleistocene.

Publications from this project:

  • Frankel, K.L., K.W. Wegmann, A. Bayasgalan, R.J. Carson, N.E. Bader, T. Adiya, E. Bolor, C.C. Durfey, J. Otgonkhuu, J. Sprajcar, K.E. Sweeney, R.T. Walker, and T.L. Colbert, 2010. Late Pleistocene slip rate of the Höh Serh-Tsagaan Salaa fault system, Mongolian Altai and intracontinental deformation in central Asia. Geophysical Journal International 183: 1134-1150.
  • Bader, N.E., A. Bayasgalan, R.J. Carson, K.L. Frankel, and K.W. Wegmann, 2009. Geology of the Höh Serh Range, Mongolian Altai. In A.P. DeWet (ed.) Keck Geology Consortium: Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Annual Keck Research Symposium in Geology. Lancaster, Keck Geology Consortium, p. 219-225. (Conference paper)

Controls on soil organic carbon accumulation

I am interested in the factors controlling element cycling, especially of organic carbon, in soils. Soils serve as a global repository of organic carbon that exchanges with atmospheric carbon dioxide, significantly affecting the concentration of this greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. I study soil carbon sequestration feedbacks caused by elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide, high temperatures, and the metabolism of live plant roots. I am particularly interested in predicting the temperature sensitivity of soil organic carbon decomposition.

Publications from this project:

  • Dijkstra F.A., N.E. Bader, W. Cheng, and D.W. Johnson, 2009. Does accelerated soil organic matter decomposition in the presence of plants increase net N mineralization? Soil Biology and Biochemistry 41: 1080-1087.
  • Gershenson, A., N.E. Bader, and W. Cheng, 2009. Effects of substrate availability on the temperature sensitivity of soil organic matter decomposition. Global Change Biology 15: 176-183.
  • Bader N.E. and W. Cheng, 2007. Rhizosphere priming effect of Populus fremontii obscures the temperature sensitivity of soil organic carbon respiration. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 39: 600-606.

GIS and spatial analysis

Geographic information systems (GIS) provide a toolbox of techniques for analyzing geospatial data. Because most data in the Earth and environmental sciences has a geospatial component, GIS can be productively applied to a host of interesting problems. I enjoy working with students and other faculty members on particular geospatial questions. I am also interested in the emerging field of spatial statistics.

Publications from this project:

  • Schook, D.M., M.D. Collins, W.E. Jensen, P.J. Williams, N.E. Bader, and T.H. Parker, 2008. Geographic patterns of song similarity in the Dickcissel, Spiza americana. The Auk 125: 953--964.

Long paleoclimate records from the southwestern U.S.

Long marine records provide paleoclimate data for the Quaternary, but long continental records are rare. Southwestern lakes, including playa lakes like Badwater Basin, provide records spanning hundreds of thousands of years. I used fossil pollen from a long core taken from Badwater Basin to reconstruct the end of the penultimate glaciation in Death Valley.

Publications from this project:

  • Bader N.E., 2000. Pollen analysis of Death Valley sediments deposited between 166 and 114 ka. Palynology 24: 49-61.