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A Different Kind of Wonderful

For most of the year, Elizabeth Jones, associate professor of civil engineering is the teacher and research leader, sharing her extensive knowledge of transportation engineering with her students. This past summer, however, Jones became the student, participating in the Yellowstone Association Institute’s Science and Stewardship program where civilians can work with scientists conducting research in Yellowstone National Park. “I enjoy being outside, seeing beautiful things, spending time where it’s quiet and so different from what I do on a daily basis,” Jones said.

Her love of nature began when Jones was a young girl—as a child she was able to explore the natural world through Girl Scout camp and with her family. As an adult, she enjoys cycling, hiking and backpacking in the summer and skiing in the winter. She tries to go backpacking as often as possible and has hiked through national forests and parks in Colorado and Wyoming. “Each place I’ve been to is unique in its own way, but the Bechler area in Yellowstone may be my favorite,” Jones said.
Yellowstone National Park is a natural wonder, a tourist trap, a unique outdoor laboratory and much more. Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the first national park in the United States.

Beyond the flora and fauna, a small army of scientists descend on the park each year to explore the mysteries behind the natural wonders. Yellowstone is considered one of the most geologically dynamic areas on the planet because it is located above a rare continental hotspot that causes volcanic activity. Scientists study geological and geochemical activities, the park’s ecosystem and the wildlife so long as their research does not threaten or diminish the park’s resources. Researchers must apply for permits and submit research proposals, but once they receive the necessary permission, they are free to explore. “I worked with geologists and microbiologists who were looking at geologic and hydrothermal features at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake,” Jones said.

The team Jones worked with has mapped the floor of Yellowstone Lake and is now further exploring interesting features they found during the mapping process. Thus far, they have discovered geysers and other hydrothermal features beneath the lake. “We saw features that look like those found on mid-ocean ridges and there is sulfur eating bacteria down there. That’s fascinating,” said Jones. To navigate the cold, murky depths of the lake, researchers deploy a remote-operated submersible. Jones’ duties included helping the research crew deploy and retrieve the submersible, collect rock and water samples, and assist with data collection. “I had read about what these guys were doing and I knew it would be fun to be a part of it,” Jones said.

Jones’ enthusiasm for the program helps make such research at Yellowstone possible. Participants in the Institute’s Science and Stewardship program volunteer their time and pay tuition fees that support the exploration taking place in the park. In addition to pairing participants with scientists, the Institute manages all the paperwork and acquires the necessary permits. Despite the effort Jones put into helping researchers, the experience was not all work and no play. She also had the opportunity to go on three backpacking trips with guides who are experts on a number of park-related subjects. “The guides were great because you had someone you could ask questions and they had answers. More knowledge is always fun,” Jones said. One backpack outing was geared specifically to learn more about grizzly bear habitats. “Up to that point, I had never seen a grizzly bear unless I was inside a car. On this trip, I saw a bear that was about 300 yards away with nothing between me and it. It was amazing,” Jones said.

Eventually, all good things must come to an end, but Jones is already looking forward to returning to Yellowstone. “I had a great time helping other researchers while spending time in a beautiful place. I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she said.

—Roxane Gay