Once a collector always a collector

Thursday, November 23, 1995

St. F.X. geologist enjoys natural laboratory of local geology

As a child, Mike Melchin, St. F.X. geology professor, was an avid collector and a member of a rock club in his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario. The youngest in a family of four, Mike decided to pursue a career in physics upon completing high school, but soon realized it wasn't for him. It wasn't until he started flipping through a program calendar at the University of Waterloo that Mike found the geology program and decided to try it. "Although I was always interested in rocks and fossils, I renewed my interest that very day," offers the professor. "I don't quite know why I didn't see it before."

The St. F.X. associate professor received his bachelor of science degree with honours from the University of Waterloo in 1980 and his master's degree in science in 1982. He continued on to receive his PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 1987. As a NSERC post-doctoral fellow/lecturer, Professor Melchin taught courses at the University of Toronto after his studies and then moved on to the University of Waterloo where he was assistant professor until1991. He has remained an adjunct professor. From there he joined the faculty at St. F.X. as assistant professor and is also currently honorary research associate at Dalhousie University.

Paleontology, which is the study of fossils, is his specialty. A combination of his initial interest and the approach his professors took in teaching particular courses led him to this area of study. He was further inspired by a summer job with the Ontario Geological Survey in Peterborough, Ontario during his third summer of undergraduate studies. "Jobs were so abundant at that time that I was the only one in a class of approximately 40 students who went on to graduate school," offers the paleontologist. "I was offered a total of four jobs that summer." It was this experience that blossomed into a thesis project and has remained a research interest through the years. His thesis subject was, "Upper Ordovician and Lower Silurian Graptolites from the Cape Phillips Formation, Canadian Arctic Archipelago." Graptolite fossils, as Professor Melchin explains, are colonies of minute, marine animals that floated in the seas 400 to 500 million years ago. The colonies are formed by tiny cups that housed the individual animals. All were interconnected by living tissue. "I always wanted to work in the Arctic," offers the professor. "My supervisor at the University of Western Ontario suggested this topic to me. I found out that the fossils I collected were so abundant and well preserved that they have allowed me to study them in ways unavailable to other researchers."

Times have changed fairly quickly in regards to the job market now available to students and Dr. Melchin has noticed that in response to these changes, students are more involved in interdisciplinary studies." Many of our students are working on joint honours," he adds. "I think it's great that they are keeping their options open."

The students aren't the only ones involved in interdisciplinary studies. Dr. Melchin is also working very closely with a number of members of the St. F.X. Department of Biology, including Dr. Edwin DeMont. In order to understand the way these organisms behave in the water, Dr. Melchin, together with Dr. DeMont and a number of undergraduate researchers and Grade 12 biology students, have been using wax and wire models to simulate their movement and feeding patterns. Dr. Melchin has also, again with undergraduate student help, developed a new technique using an infrared video camera connected to a microscope that allows a transparent view of the graptolites to see their growth patterns and internal structures. All of these studies are aimed at gaining a better understanding of the way these extinct organisms lived. He points out, "We can then use this information to better understand the formation of the rocks in which they occur and the history of the earth and oceans in which they lived." Dr. Melchin presented many of these results at an International Graptolite Conference in California in June.

As a participant in twelve professionally organized field trips in various parts of Canada as well as Europe, China and Central America, Professor Melchin says he is most comfortable teaching in the field because he gets the most out of his students. "The area that surrounds Antigonish has a wide diversity of rocks," offers the geology professor. "We have a natural laboratory at our finger tips." He has extended his field trip experience to the elementary school level as well. As a father to three boys with another baby on the way, the professor enjoys sharing his field trip experience with all ages. He's talked to Grades two to four students about fossils and explained how the various tools were used by showing them slides of his Arctic voyage. A field trip taken with Grade three students allowed him to answer some of their questions and tap into a new market of future students.

In terms of offering a degree in geology, St. F.X. has one of the smallest departments in the country, but Professor Melchin says he wouldn't want to return working in a larger institution where there is very little contact with students. "We talk to each other more and spend a lot of time talking with faculty of other departments as well," he adds. "That allows us to broaden our horizons." The professor feels that the students have a better rapport with faculty as a result and although St. F.X. may not have a specialist available in every field, he says that the beauty of technology makes it easy to reach them. The recipient of a Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada research grant valued at $23,000, Mike Melchin looks forward to his new position as chair of the Department of Geology.

Reprinted from AlumniNews, Fall 1995 courtesy of the St. Francis Xavier University Public Relations Department