Cari Johnson: A chance to analyze Mongolia’s geology
"Geologists tend to talk with their hands," says Cari Johnson, cupping hers to show how the East Gobi Basin sits at the bottom of the map of Mongolia. Johnson is planning her third season of summer fieldwork in the deserts of Asia. The first summer, before she enrolled at Stanford in 1996, geology Professor Stephan Graham sent her along as a field assistant an assignment he often gives to see if his students are as ready as they imagine for the personal hardships and the bureaucratic hurdles that come with work in these ancient lands.
"It was much harder than I had anticipated," Johnson concedes. But the hardships also are alleviated by the pleasures of working in Mongolia, where, she says, the people are kind and open and the nomadic life of a geological field team is not much different from everyday living for the local residents.
Johnson's taste for the outdoor life began in her freshman year in high school when she arrived at a Salt Lake City school that emphasized outdoor education. She was fresh from Texas, "a Southern belle like you wouldn't believe." Her first camping trip convinced her that life could be lived without a curling iron. In high school, she trekked in the Utah wilderness and at Carleton College in Minnesota she joined geology field trips that convinced her that life is lived best with part of the year in the wild. "I realized that what I want to do is what geologists do," she says.
In Mongolia, Johnson has the opportunity to bring together her training and the research tools of a major university to try to find out how a major sedimentary basin was formed, when it was formed, and what oil and mineral deposits might lie there.
Her work requires a combination of tasks in the field and in the lab. In the field, she does detailed studies of rock outcroppings. "It's like looking at a cliff of rock for the first time again, starting with the simplest questions about how it is structured and what rocks are there." In the lab, she examines the composition of rock samples and age-dates them. Later this year, to add to what she's seen on the surface, she'll start work on a 1,000-foot core sample drilled in the Gobi Basin by an oil company.
Johnson and her fellow Asia researcher Jeremy Hourigan are second-year doctoral students, honored by the department of geological and environmental sciences for the quality of their work in their first year. She says the Stanford Graduate Fellowship came as "a complete surprise," both an honor and a gift.
During the school year, it means that teaching is no longer a financial necessity. "I loved being a TA last year, but this means another 10 to 12 hours a week for research," Johnson says. In the summer, her fellowship frees some of her adviser's grant money for other purposes ideally, a research assistant to join her in Mongolia. "This is a big project, and we only can do fieldwork for a few weeks each summer," Johnson says. "Another pair of eyes in the field will help." SR
- JANET BASU
Photo by Linda Cicero