Brooke Patton

Finding the path to help others -- Brooke Patton, a graduating senior at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, works with a microscope in a geology laboratory where she works as an undergraduate research assistant. The Carbondale native, who will graduate with a degree in geology on Saturday, Dec. 13, said SIU gave her the opportunity to accomplish great things.  (Photo by Steve Buhman)

December 11, 2014

Student uses her path of discovery to help others

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Brooke Patton knelt by the side of a small, shallow reservoir near the village of Mutoku in Zimbabwe, taking water samples and watching dozens of local people draw water from the area’s main source. 

It was summer 2013, and the Southern Illinois University Carbondale student had traveled to the African nation with friends and fellow students to complete a water purification project that she had planned as part of an independent study project in geology. Doing something about the lack of potable water and trouble with water resources in developing countries was quickly becoming the center of Patton’s future plans, and the trip was giving her the kind of real-life, hands-on education that SIU provides for motivated students. 

But now, seeing first-hand how heavily stressed the resource was – and how crucial it was to the 20,000 or so people in the area who depended on it – Patton knew she would have to change her approach. It wasn’t water quality that mattered so much – although that was a concern.  It was water quantity. And that was a water management issue. 

On her own, without reliable communication available, Patton decided to change the focus of her mission. 

“I was very nervous about making that call, but communication in the area wasn’t possible,” Patton, the daughter of Brent and Vicki Patton of Carbondale, said. 

But thinking on her feet and following the path to discovery were also skills she learned during her four years at SIU; a place she acknowledged having some misgivings about attending at first. 

“Because I grew up in Carbondale, SIU was almost too familiar,” she explained. “But once I got here, I quickly learned you can achieve anything here. You really get out of it what you put into it.” 

The geology major, along with more than 1,600 other degree candidates, will graduate this month during commencement ceremonies. Patton, who also works as a laboratory assistant and was one of the founders of a popular Carbondale-area road race, hopes to pursue a degree through the Master’s International Program through the Peace Corp and its partner universities. 

Her journey from Carbondale Community High School, to SIU and on to Africa and back had its beginnings in the relationships she formed as a teenager. Her friends, Ellen Esling and Lacey Gibson, the daughters, respectively, of SIU professors Steven Esling (geology) and David Gibson (plant biology), were long time pals who together came up with the idea for the Pumpkin Run, a 2-mile race held around Halloween. 

Founded in 2011, the popular race, which attracts as many as 300 participants each year, benefits a local environmental preservation group called Green Earth. It also benefits a group called ACTIVE, founded by Zimbabwe native Peter Makiriyado, who recently earned his doctorate at SIU. ACTIVE is aimed at raising money for water purification efforts and building a college in Zimbabwe. 

Solving problems around the world had always been an interest of Patton’s. While she was in high school, her strong interest in science filled her with dreams of becoming a doctor and serving with Doctors Without Borders. But an environmental sciences class in high school got her thinking in a new direction. 

“That class kind of blew me away,” she said. “We learned about these major events, like Love Canal, that we had never heard of.  These were really important issues, and I wanted to do something about that.” 

Patton enrolled at SIU as a biology major but switched to geology before classes even began as the environmental aspects of the discipline took hold. Through her talks with Makiriyado, Patton began wishing she could help with such environmental issues in Zimbabwe. She worked closely with Ken Anderson, professor of geology, to design a water purification project for an independent study project while planning the trip in fall 2012. 

Anderson said Patton is a talented student and exceptionally socially conscious. 

“She is determined to make sure that she puts what she learns to use making a difference for the better in other people's lives,” Anderson said. “She is a remarkable young scientist with a very bright future ahead of her.  It has been, and I am sure it will continue to be, very gratifying watching her career take shape. I suspect that there are great things ahead for her and lots of folks will be better off because of that.” 

The following summer, Patton and friends Esling, Sam Brittingham and Elle Murray, all of whom are current or former SIU students, headed to Zimbabwe. But best-laid plans don’t always work, however. Upon witnessing the situation with the reservoir, and being unable to reach Anderson, Patton found herself calling an audible and attacking the most pressing problem instead. 

“When I saw the reservoir, it was shocking because thousands of people use it and it was really obvious to me that water management was what I needed to look into,” she said. “They use it for everything: laundry, drinking water, some irrigation and cattle. I believed the water source was lacking, that it was heavily stressed. The local people said siltation was a problem. The entire thing was slowly being filled in with silt and getting worse each year. And if there’s no more water there’s nothing to purify.” 

Patton set out to conduct a bathymetry survey of the reservoir, which is like a topography survey but under water. She spent six weeks in the country, taking depth measurements in a grid of 5-foot by 5-foot squares, and gathering thousands of numbers and data points, later entering them into a geographic information system program on a computer, which created a graphic representation. 

Using that data, she was able to estimate the reservoir’s volume. She was also able to make predictions, based on various scenarios, parameters and factors, about how long the water resource would remain viable for the local population’s use. As graduation fast approached this week, Patton was busily finishing the paper that describes her findings. 

But simply traveling to a foreign land has not been enough for her. Taking her own mantra of “getting out of it what you put into it,” Patton is also helping researchers study actual pieces of a foreign land drilled out of the ground and brought back here to study. 

Patton works as an undergraduate research assistant for Scott Ishman, professor of geology, who has made several trips to the bottom of the world as part of elite, international, multidisciplinary scientific teams. Traveling to Antarctica, the teams have recovered cores from deep under the ice that potentially hold information about the planet’s past.

Ishman is a micropaleontologist and has studied foraminifera, a tiny single-cell organism that lives in the ocean and has a shell. Looking at the shells that are preserved as fossils in the rock cores can provide information on the age of the rock and the type of environment in which it was formed. That information, when used in context with other information, can help scientists decipher the climate history of Antarctica for the last 17 million years.

Patton’s job is analyzing data tables with an eye toward determining whether the size of foraminifera effects its isotopic signature. 

As her undergraduate career at SIU draws to a close this month, Patton can’t help but marvel at how many opportunities she has had to pursue her passion for knowledge at SIU. Participating in the University Honors Program and the Research Rookies program, which helps undergrads get hands-on research experience early in their college years, helped shift her perspective on the university.   

“It became clear to me that I had the opportunity to customize my experience here based on my interests and what I desired to learn, and that initiative at this university is indeed rewarded,” she said. “My long term goal is to attain my doctorate and conduct hydrology and water management research in the developing world.”