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College of Arts and Sciences

A Thirst for Geology

By Carrie Cook
Communications Student Assistant 

At first glance, Geology might seem like a study of lifeless rocks on a dusty shelf, but Michael Vega can’t see how anyone would not be interested.

“It literally impacts everything around you,” he explains. “All metal comes from a mine—from underground. All water comes from a geologic source, whether it’s a lake or ground water, All the food you eat has to uptake nutrients from the soil, which is a product of rock weathering. It’s the most relevant subject someone can study.”

As president of Williston Geology Club, Vega, who is studying Chemistry and Geology at K-State, promotes his passion at science fairs. At the Marlatt Elementary school science fair last November, he brought papier mâché models of vinegar-and-baking-soda volcanoes and mineral samples for the students to explore. Vega’s favorite, however, is the model he uses to show how water is stored in the rocks beneath our feet—our groundwater.

Michael VegaGroundwater is Vega’s area of expertise, though it’s largely invisible to most people.

“It’s important,” he says. “It’s our drinking supply in a lot of places, and in some places the water isn’t safe to drink.”

While many people think that all groundwater contamination is caused by humans, some of that contamination is natural, caused by the composition of the rocks which store the water.

“Rocks can naturally contain toxic metals like arsenic and manganese,” Vega said. “Certain reactions influenced by micro-organisms can force those rocks to dissolve and subsequently leech the metals into the groundwater.”

One of those places is Murshibadad, India. Last year, Vega travelled to there with his advisor and mentor, K-State Geology professor Dr. Saugata Datta, to study the extent of the arsenic contamination in the region. It was a grounding experience.

“You learn about these things in class,” Vega says, “but it really changes when you see it in person.”

In Murshibadad, Vega saw the effects of contaminated drinking water.

“People had skin lesions,” he said, “and rashes on their hands that were cancerous from the arsenic.”

Vega’s research into the microbiological mechanisms of contamination is important to future innovations, though it can seem as if it does nothing to alleviate the current problems. There are technologies that can filter the water in Murshibadad, and many have been implemented, but they are complicated systems subject to decay and require constant maintenance.

“Right now,” Vega says, “they’re trying to find solutions that are easy to maintain.”

For Vega, the son of Florida State University alumni, attending college was a foregone conclusion, one that he met with an air of resignation.

“I knew that I was going to go,” says Vega, “but I didn’t care where. I just went to the in-state school.”

Though he selected Kansas State without much thought, he admits he could not have chosen a better place. As a freshman, the open option program allowed him to explore until Geology unlocked his love of learning, including his love of research. He didn’t see himself doing research at all until he took a course with Professor Datta. Now he can’t see himself not doing research. As he looks forward in his career, he plans on working in academia.

“I don’t think I would be in the place where I am if I hadn’t met my advisor,” Vega says.

Even though he grew up rooting for Florida State, Vega is now a Wildcat through and through.