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Ekaterina Larina

College: Brooklyn College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Going Sea Deep

Back in the Maastrichtian Age – before Earth’s last mass extinction some 65.5 million years ago – ammonites were as dominant in the sea as dinosaurs were on land. These long-extinct creatures (think of an octopus with a shell) still hold secrets, and Ekaterina Larina intends to reveal them.

Larina (Brooklyn College, B.S. in geology, 2012), now in the geology master’s program at Brooklyn College, won a 2013 three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to seek proof about what caused that mass extinction. The $126,000 NSF grant is the most prestigious award for graduate research in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The extinction most likely happened because of a sustained global winter. As to what caused that climate change, the most popular theory is that a massive asteroid smashed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, spewing debris into the atmosphere and darkening the sky. However, some scientists point to climate-changing gasses from the prolonged volcanic event that created India’s Deccan Plateau, an area of basalt more than a mile thick and substantially larger than California that was deposited over hundreds of thousands of years.

Although the end result would have been the same, the asteroid strike would have brought a rapid chill, while the Deccan eruptions would have cooled the world gradually.

So what can ammonites contribute? Larina says their well-preserved shells in the Owl Creek Formation, a section of ancient ocean floor that she studies in Mississippi, can reveal a record of the ancient climate. In addition, comparative analysis of isotopes of oxygen and carbon in the fossils could clarify the depths at which the three species of ammonites lived, providing a richer understanding of prehistoric marine life.

As an undergraduate, Larina visited Mississippi through an NSF-sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates. “The focus was to study ammonite distribution in space and time,” she says. “Different species were dominant as you moved through the 500,000 years right before their extinction, first the Baculites and Discoscaphites then the Eubaculites. Why did this change happen? Was it due to gradual environmental change? Competitive replacement? I’m trying to reconstruct the temperatures and to study how changes in ammonite distribution could be related to environmental perturbations, such as climate or global sea-level change.”

Larina’s fascination with ancient mysteries began in her native Kazakhstan, an area rich in far-older ammonites, from 200 million years ago. “The first time I held a fossil in my hands was when I was seven years old … a trilobite brought to me by my grandfather, who was a geologist,” she writes in her NSF application.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, her parents insisted that she pursue a practical career in management and economics rather than paleontology. She had all but finished a master’s degree in Russia when she leapt at the opportunity to study in the United States.

At Brooklyn College, she started from the beginning – including intensive English as a second language – as she worked toward a B.S. in geology.

“There are amazing professors, and everybody is working on different types of research,” she says.

For example, lecturer Matthew Garb, who works on the last mass extinction and ammonites, took his stratigraphy class (which studies rock layers) to New Jersey’s Atlantic coast to collect data and write reports.

“I was able to reconstruct what was happening 75 million years ago, how deep was the ocean, where was the beach and what creatures lived here.”

Garb became her mentor, and they conduct research together.

After earning her master’s in 2014, Larina intends to pursue a doctorate with her NSF fellowship. Her goal is to combine research with teaching at a university. Meanwhile, she is teaching a stratigraphy and an introductory geology course to Brooklyn College undergraduates.