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WVU geology student researching 'world of the past'

Before he was rafting 40 miles down a river in Alaska and sailing in the South China Sea, West Virginia University student Ben Johnson was an engineering major at Michigan State University. However, he quickly realized that engineering was not for him. Recognizing the combination of taking an introductory geology course and his love of being outside, Johnson knew a geology major would be the right fit for him.

Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson

After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Michigan State University, Johnson enrolled at WVU to pursue a Ph.D. in the Department of Geology and Geography in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

“After the first couple of years at WVU, it really started to feel more like home,” Johnson said. “I really look back on my time there fondly. WVU was a major key in my success.”  

While on a boat for 60 days, Johnson and a team of researchers traveled through the South China Sea in spring 2017 as part of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program’s (IODP) Expedition 367. The group strived to understand the way the composition of Earth’s crust changes at the boundary between continents and oceans.

“We’re really living in the snapshot of geologic time,” Johnson said. “We need to go to places where we have a much more complete rock record that stands a much longer period of time.”

Johnson served as a sedimentologist to describe the core being drilled. He is a co-author of the paper, “Rapid transition from continental breakup to igneous oceanic crust in the South China Sea,” published in Nature Geoscience based on this study.  

“Ben’s research required him to establish collaborations with scientists from several other institutions including Harvard, University of Iowa, University of California-Santa Cruz, Dartmouth and the Canadian Geological Survey,” said Jaime Toro, Johnson’s adviser and a professor of geology. “These connections help raise the profile of WVU and create avenues for future collaborative research.”

Johnson has also researched the tectonic evolution in Arctic Alaska with Toro. Together, they explored the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to understand the early Paleozoic rocks there. The project began in the summer of 2012, when Toro and Johnson rafted for 40 miles down the Kongakut River in Alaska while collecting samples, making measurements and conducting preliminary geologic mapping of the area. While working to understand the Paleozoic geological history of the area, they discovered the rocks’ stories can be linked to the early tectonic events that formed the Appalachian Mountains. 

“The story of plate tectonics is told through the life and death of oceans, and by tracing the remnants of the ancient oceans, we can more accurately reconstruct the configuration of the world’s continents at specific points in time,” Johnson said. “You’re peeking at what we call paleogeography, which is simply a map of the world of the past. By tracing old subduction zones and old ocean basins, you can piece all the puzzles together.”  

Johnson currently works as an operations geologist for Chevron North America Exploration and Production, an energy company focused on producing safe and reliable energy in Midland, Texas.

“Because of the support that I had from the geology program and WVU as a whole, there were a lot of interesting experiences that I don’t think I would have had otherwise,” Johnson said. “WVU is a really great place.”