Undergrad strikes gold with new theory

Paul Mayne // Western News

Second-year Geography student Maia Somers recently presented at the Association of American Geographers in Chicago, more commonly attended by master’s students, researchers and professors. She spoke on a new theory for gold deposition.

Maia Somers may have felt a bit out of her league. But the second-year Geography student held her own against her discipline’s elite at the recent Association of American Geographers (AAG) in Chicago.

It’s an uncommon occurrence for undergraduates to present at the AAG, a top showcase for master’s students, professors and researchers. But with the assistance of fellow second-year colleague Destiny Allen-Green and Geography professor Micha Pazner, Somers did so – and definitely got noticed.

“There were a lot of shocked faces there that I was only in second year,” Somers said. “It went really well and I got a lot of praise afterwards. It’s definitely a confidence booster, too. I wish Destiny could have come because I couldn’t have done this without her.”

A simple email began Somers’ journey. Pazner sent out a request looking for work-study students, to which Somers and Allen-Green applied – and was accepted.

“It was an idea he asked me to help him with. It was a sort of ‘on a whim’ type of thing,” Somers said.

Their abstract looked at a new theory of gold deposition. Based on a 1964 paper by geologist Olaf Jenkins, the ongoing theory was gold was deposited from its original outcrop location (where it was first formed) by the movement of a stream.

But Somers saw a gap.

“What I did was critique that idea saying, ‘Wait, there’s something missing here,’” she said. “There are parts in that research where there are holes, where things were explained, but he kind of beat around the bush. So, we came up with a new theory.

“We’re saying gold can get into a solution, as a nano-particle, and dissolve in this solution of water in a stream. It can get into the ground water and infiltrate through the soil and end up in the ground water system. Then, it’s erratically distributed, instead of just by the streams.”

Somers said she, along with Allen-Green, hopes to expand on their initial inquiries with further research.

“We want to show it can happen a different way,” she said. “I really enjoy this because I have an interest in geography, geology and environmental science, and this sort of ties all three of those together. I was really lucky I found it. Who knows, it could change the mining industry in some way.”

Somers said since “it’s so cool and I love to talk about it,” she might see herself returning to the AAG next year, as a ‘veteran’ undergraduate.

“A lot of it went over my head because I’m still only in second year,” Somers laughed. “But it’s a positive environment and handy for geographers, or anyone doing similar research. It’s a whole bunch of people there sharing ideas and by listening to others it can help you with your own research.

“This is a new theory no one else has thought of, and I never thought of myself doing this in second year. I’m just fascinated by it.”

At the same time, Somers welcomes a critique of her ideas at any time, which she said is what being in university is all about.

“It’s been an adventure for me,” she said. “I would tell others to be critical of everything. Everyone started out where I was, and if I were go on to do research, I would want people to be critical of my work because I don’t know if it’s necessarily right – they are just my ideas.”