Digging into the Human Side of Geology
Doctoral student emphasizes public health and safety in her research on controversial oil and gas extraction technique known as “fracking.”
Julia Wise went from the culture shock of moving from Santa Fe, N.M., to Cincinnati just a few years back, to now analyzing the metaphorical aftershocks threatening public health and safety that have been caused by the recent surge in popularity of hydraulic fracturing.
This subterranean oil and gas extraction technique, often called “fracking,” produces contaminated wastewater as a byproduct. The potentially toxic water is then disposed of by pumping it underground into wastewater wells. It’s a controversial method. With our nation’s desire to find new energy sources, fracking is seen by many as a viable way to harvest fuel. But if left unmonitored and done improperly, it can lead to contamination of ground water, damage to air quality and other negative effects on human health.
Wise knows what’s at stake, and she says there will be no slacking on fracking in her research. She completed her master’s degree in geology at the University of Cincinnati this spring and is beginning work in the Geology Department’s
doctoral program, where she’ll focus on the health impact of fracking with help from assistant professor Amy Townsend-Small.
“This type of research is exceptionally important in today’s age where if you were to Google ‘fracking,’ your search results would return everything form ‘God’s own hand reaching down and giving gifts to people’ to ‘the very sight of a hydraulic fracturing truck will make you die,’” Wise says.
Wise began to develop her passion for human health issues during her undergrad at Macalester College in Minnesota where she majored in biology and chemistry with an emphasis on international issues. She also worked as a research assistant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center when she first came to the city and began taking classes at UC.
When she started work on her master’s degree in metamorphic petrology and geochronology, she spent a lot of time traveling to mountain ranges around the world to sample rocks and analyze their mineral composition. It was an incredibly enriching experience for her, but it lacked the human element that she desired.
“Mountains aren’t people. I missed the human interaction,” Wise says. “I started thinking about how earth materials impact human health and ways that I can incorporate geology with good living and humans.”
As part of her doctoral research, Wise wants to uncover ways to empower communities where fracking is taking place by clearing the misinformation that exists and removing the fear of the science involved. Accessibility is critical to this process. She says people need to know where to get data on water and ground quality and how they can use that information.
“It’s no different than if you’re baking a cake – you check the ingredient list,” Wise says. “It’s a matter of making the processes that will be affecting these folks as accessible as an ingredient list. That’s something UC can do. We can fill that role of alleviating concerns.”
Wise is grateful for the guidance she’s had in developing a strong background in the fundamentals of geology and the freedom she’s been given in the Geology Department. The connection between rocks and human health might be a difficult one for some to make, but Wise says it shows the department’s open-mindedness and its willingness to be on the forefront of interdisciplinary studies. After she earns her PhD, Wise plans to work for a nonprofit organization or think tank where she can continue her geology and health research.
“Research offers the best of both worlds,” Wise says. “You get to solve puzzles to help people. If you’re doing it right, you’re always faced with new challenges and you’re always going for some greater good. That’s pretty sweet.”
If at first Wise doesn’t find what she wants professionally, she’ll rely on what she learned growing up in Santa Fe, a place she says people go to find themselves.
“Because of that, you’re never told that you can’t do anything. People just say, ‘Go for it,’” Wise says. “I don’t see myself limited in any capacity. If there’s not a position I like, then I’ll create one.”
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