Research visit to St Andrews – SPP1833 Young Scientist Mobility Scholarship

In December 2021, I was fortunate enough to receive a Young Scientist Mobility Scholarship through the DFG-funded SPP1833 program to visit Dr. Eva Stueeken for three weeks at the historical University of St Andrews in the U.K.

Main St. in St Andrews, Scotland

The purpose of this trip was to measure the nitrogen isotope composition of modern and ancient stromatolites. These analyses provide important information about biogeochemical cycling in primitive microbial systems, the predominant life form on early Earth. Like any cutting edge research, this project is a collaboration between experts in various fields, including geobiologists (Dr. Stueeken), microbiologists (Dr. Michelle Gehringer at the U. Kaiserslautern) and inorganic isotope geochemists such as myself.

During the research visit, we analysed a series of modern and ancient stromatolites. The modern stromatolites were from the famous Shark Bay World Heritage Area in Western Australia and Lake Chew Bahir in Ethiopia. The ancient stromatolites were from a number of localities around southern Africa, including the Archean Kaapvaal and Zimbabwe cratons.

The main steps involved in the nitrogen isotope analyses of stromatolites involve acidifying the carbonate fraction to concentrate the nitrogen-rich organic material, drying and then accurately weighing out a small amount of the residue into tin capsules, which are then combusted and analysed by Elemental analyser isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA-IRMS).

Aside from the scientific activities, I also took the advantage of the high latitude and coastal location to enjoy some stunning views of St Andrews on a few morning runs that involved more taking pictures than running.

The trip was also an opportunity to explore the local geology around East Fife, a land of Folds, Fire and Fossils. A highlight was the walk to the “Rock & Spindle” – a series of rocks formed by a volcano that erupted about 300 million years ago – that is located just ~2 km south of St Andrews on the coastal path and was well worth it, as was the entire trip!

View northwards towards St Andrews from the coastal path of folded Carboniferous sedimentary rocks
The Rock & Spindle, East Fife. The “Rock” part is a column composed of basalt that formed in the volcanic vent. This is easily visible and towers around 30 m above the surrounding sandstone . The “Spindle” was a bit harder to find, but I read it was supposed to resemble a spinning wheel formed by the radial cooling of the basalt. Looking back and comparing older photographs (left) compared to mine from December 2021 (right) with a warm coffee for company (rather than the winter winds of the North Sea), you can see there has been a landslide and the “Spindle” is now largely covered!

New publication in HESS

Excited to find out that our recent paper entitled The evolution of stable silicon isotopes in a coastal carbonate aquifer on Rottnest Island, Western Australia was published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. This was a collaboration between UNSW Sydney and ANSTO in Australia.

The link to the freely available (open access) paper is here:

Selected photographs from a field trip to Rottnest Island in 2017 shown below


EGU2021 presentation

I am presenting at EGU2021 on 29/04/21 in session BG4.3: (Paleo-)environmental reconstructions from biomineralized carbonates: From the Precambrian to the present.

My presentation is entitled The uranium isotopic composition of modern stromatolites forming in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Find it here:


Field trip to the Singhbhum Craton, India, March 2020

In mid-Feburary/early March 2020, I was lucky enough to visit the Singhbhum Craton in north-western India as part of an excursion by the DFG-funded SPP1833 program. In comparison to other Archean cratons such as the Pilbara, Western Australia and Kaapvaal, South Africa, it is much less studied. Little did we know that this would be the last international trip for some time.

This trip was taken in February/March 2020 just when Europe started to realise the seriousness of the emerging covid-19 virus in China. I distinctly remember taking this photo in Dubai and remarking how strange it was that people were wearing masks…

Singhbhum Craton

The Singhbhum Craton in northeastern India is one of the four major Archean cratons that comprise the Indian Shield. It is one of the few Precambrian terranes that record periods of sedimentation from the Paleoarchean to Neoproterozoic. Our field trip started in Kolkata, West Bengal and first headed due west to Jamshedpur. The southernmost point of the trip was the Daitari Greenstone Belt.

Surface geology of the Singhbhum Craton, India also showing the major roads (own map using the 1:2M dataset from the Geological Survey of India). Dotted lines show our approximate route (if we were crows).

Day 1: Arriving in Kolkata

First taste of ‘Puri’, avoided the fresh vegetables, mosquito tent – check

It would be a disappointment to arrive in India for the first time and not experience the culture shock. Landing in Kolkata at 06:30 AM was suitably manic. Firstly, it was not possible to get Indian Rupees in Germany and, as it turned out, not possible at Kolkata airport either! The morning rush hour in Kolkata is also pretty hectic.

Day 2: Kolkata to Jamshedpud

Man on top of a minibus with a goat, first chai latte, first motorway experience and first Methi Paneer curry. I would recommend all except the driving.

Day 2 was largely driving. Although we only drove around 300 km from Kolkata to Jamshedpur, there is no Autobahn in India. Even the main motorway is filled with cows, people, goats and pretty much anything else you wouldn’t expect to find on a motorway.

Day 3: Jamshedpud and around

Jamshedpur roundabout

The geology begin in ernest on Day 3 with a visit to a mafic dike formed within the Singhbhum granite. Igneous dikes typically form when magma rises upwards into fractures or fissures present in the overlying rock. This implies that the dike is always younger than the host rock age of the basement rocks; in this case, U-Pb dating of zircon minerals from the granites suggest an age of approximately 3.3 Ga, but the age of the dike is not known. The scale of dikes range from centimetres to kilometres; in this case, a few 100 m.

Day 4: Tua Dungri

The view from Tua Dungri

The highlight of day 4 was the rare komatiitic rocks exposed at Tua Dungri. Komatiitics are ultramafic ancient lavas that are unusually rich in magnesium and are rare, but commonly found in Archean terranes. Their formation is thought to have been associated with the higher temperatures in the early Archean mantle. Modern basaltic eruptions, e.g. those on Hawaii, typically erupt at around 12oo °C, but komatiitic eruptions are thought to have been in excess of 1600 °C.

Above: Cooling cracks and polyhedral jointing interpreted to represent the cumulate zone of the komatiite.
Left: Spinifex texture on komatiite rocks (centre of image). This unique texture comprises randomly orientated, elongated olivine crystals caused by the rapid cooling of the ancient lava.

Day 5: Dhalbhumgarh

in the Chaibasa Formation showing various sedimentary and soft-sediment deformation structures

Day 5 took us to an abandaoned WW2 air base. The aeroplanes were long since gone, but the excellent outcrop of the Chaibasa Formation remains. This outcrop comprised thinly-bedded layers of sandstone and siltstone interpreted to have been deposited on a shallow marine shelf. The formation appears to have been deposited rapidly with ample sediment supply. Such rapid burial likely assisted in preserving the remarkable sedimentary features.

It has been speculated that some of the features in the Chaibasa Formation represent microbial structures, i.e. stromatolites. An alternative explanation is that these structures are penecontemporaneous folds, which are formed by inorganic processes through the deformation of individual cross-beds. These features are generally localised, e.g. a single bed, and may be found adajcent to undeformed beds. Examples include:

  1. Load structures: irregular bulges at the interface between sand and mud layers caused by gravity
  2. Ball-and-pillow structures: isolated, small round structures caused by physical movements (e.g. seismic activity) of unconsolidated sediments
  3. Convolute bedding
  4. Slump structures

Considering the abundant evidence for soft-sediment deformation processes in the Chaibasa Formation, the proposed stromatolite structures (image above, right) may just be examples of convolute bedding. This occurs frequently in deltaic environments whereby the sediment is water-saturated and easily mobilised. The mud-rich shale layers deform easily but the sandstone layers show competence to form stromatolitic structures. Such a process may have been initiated by minor seismic activiity.

Day 6: Dimna Lake Section

The Dhalbhum Formation outcrops at the shoreline of Dimna Lake. The mean of the youngest zircon grains is ~1.8 Ma corresponding to the mid-Paleoproterozoic. Soft layers of volcanic ash are interbedded with sandstone and shale layers. The sequence is around 50 m thick and beds dip steeply (80 deg). A short walk from the lake brings you to the pillow basalts of the Dalma Formation, suggesting that this area experienced extensive volcanic activity in the Paleoproterozoic.

End of part one. Part two in progress.


“crappy first draft”

I’m not sure if this post should be short or long, a personal intro to my life, a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of what I hope to publish.

Regardless, I just clicked the “New Post” button and am publishing a post today. I’ve followed the advice and tried not to worry about how the blog looks. I didn’t have to worry about naming the blog as it is about me.

Why do this?

  • An online repository for my research activities beyond my iCloud account and the recruitment systems of various universities.
  • A place to help focus my own ideas about my research.
  • Somewhere to share photos from the places I get to travel to as part of my job.
  • Dip a toe into the world of writing outside of scientific peer-reviewed journals.

If this blog has any views throughout the next year, except my friends and family, then I will consider it an accomplishment.