How much can we learn from the sediments of a lake bed?

Well, how about understanding what the climate of the world was like thousands of years ago? Or giving us clues about understanding our climate of today?

These questions fascinate Melinda Campbell Higley ’07, and she has been able to study them in northwest Ohio as part of the Lake Erie glacial watershed and on Christmas Island (also known as Kiritimati), the world’s largest coral atoll about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii.

“Christmas Island makes a great study site for lake sediment because of its unique location,” said Higley. “There are numerous lakes on the island, and it is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which allows us to analyze strategic climate information.”

Her research as a graduate student in paleoclimatology has her analyzing lake sediment from the island. Noting the composition, color and layering of the sediment gives information about the climate history of the region.

Higley’s team is discovering that there was a long dry period in the island’s history—perhaps for hundreds of years—and that finding leads to other questions that help piece together climate history and give perspective on our current climate.

“If we can understand significant changes in past climates around the world, it helps us project climates in the future,” she said. “Why exactly was Christmas Island dry in the past? What implications might that have for Pacific climate today and in the future?”

Higley credits family friends in her Saginaw, Michigan, church for encouraging her to enroll at Calvin.

“They said, ‘We know you and we know Calvin and you’d do well there,’” she recalled. “That had a deep impression on me.”

Higley was interested in geology from a high school teacher’s inspirational teaching and said she “felt at home in Calvin’s geology department—you wanted to be there. Every class and professor had a lasting influence.”

She worked with Calvin professor Deanna van Dijk in environmental geology exploring Michigan’s sand dunes and had many opportunities for research, conference speaking and vocational networking.

“I really felt prepared for what I’m doing now,” she said.

Higley went on to the University of Toledo for her master’s degree based on the recommendation of Calvin grad Jonathan Bossenbroek ’96, a Toledo professor. She did her Lake Erie research there and also delighted in working with high school students, introducing them to scientific research experiences.

After her master’s, Higley spent five years doing wetlands geology for the Illinois State Geological Survey in Champaign, Illinois, eventually beginning her doctoral work at the University of Illinois.

While some of this science can be tricky for Christians, we should study and piece together the physical record.Melinda Campbell Higley ”07

After another research stint on Christmas Island, she will graduate next year and is pondering her future. Perhaps that will be teaching.

“I’m leaning toward professorship,” she said, “and I’d like to look at four-year liberal arts colleges. I’m finding that my heart is there, helping students understand the research process.”

Remembering the teachers who encouraged her along her academic journey, she added, “I suppose I want to be Deanna van Dijk!”

Higley thinks her area of research matters.

“We all should care about climate,” she said. “And while some of this science can be tricky for Christians, we should study and piece together the physical record.”

She adds that it is important for us to determine what is anthropogenic—caused by human activity—and what is natural change.

“For me, being a Christian and a geologist doesn’t create conflict. Thinking about time—the evidence we find in the earth—is something that has always increased my awe in what God created.”