Shikha Sharma wanted excitement. But looking back, she admits maybe she went a little over the top.
“I still remember that first day of fieldwork,” she said. “When we went, there was a big bomb blast somewhere very nearby.”
Sharma, a new geologist, was on the side of a slope with colleagues in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. The military saw them with their compasses and hammers and checked their papers. They were suspicious that the group was planning on causing an explosion of their own.
Sharma worked in some of the most dangerous regions in India, including a ravine-studded area that was home to bandits and robbers.
“There were times when it was really scary,” she said. She’s glad she went, though she wouldn’t go back to that kind of work. Now she likes to work quietly in her laboratory using state-of-the art instruments called mass spectrometers.
But even without all the field adventures, geology is exciting, she says. The field was exciting enough for her to choose it years ago when people would worry and wonder if she’d get a job in the narrow academic market for female geologists in India. She is now on the front line of monitoring energy development in West Virginia, one of the strongest pulse points for energy in the country.
When she arrived at West Virginia University in 2010, she didn’t have an established lab, and though hydraulic fracturing was taking place in Pennsylvania as industry drilled for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, the drive for natural gas was just beginning in West Virginia.
From here on out, as the nation develops one of its largest natural gas reserves, Sharma will be part of that story.
After she received her doctorate, she studied the natural history in lake sediment during her time in India and around Lake Superior, later moving to the University of Wyoming where she tackled modern environmental issues such as how the development of methane and carbon sequestration affected water quality.
Since she began at WVU three years ago, Sharma has studied the development of unconventional and sustainable energy resources, and the environmental concerns that result.
She can help find areas where gas is likely to be more abundant and identify the sources of stray gas and pollutants entering groundwater and streams. Working with the US Geological Survey Science Center in Charleston, Sharma and her colleagues have established a baseline water chemistry for north-central West Virginia before extensive shale gas drilling takes place.
The information from water samples she collected before drilling became widespread will tell the truth about what the area’s water looked like before drilling. This will be helpful as West Virginia’s people and industries try to determine what changes occur after drilling.
“It’s really, really critical,” she says of her work, “because we just can’t point fingers afterward.”
Working with the Department of Energy’s National Technology Laboratory, Sharma is monitoring water and gas from shallow and deep wells before and after hydraulic fracturing at a couple of sites in the region.
“This allows us to accurately assess if there are any changes in hydrologic connections associated with drilling activities,” she said.
She’s also studying the efficient development of the emerging technologies of geothermal energy and carbon sequestration.
“It’s really, really, critical, because we just can’t point fingers afterward.”
Carbon sequestration captures and holds carbon below ground in an effort to keep additional carbon out of the atmosphere.
Aside from investigating energy activity, she and her colleagues are developing geochemical tools to understand how water moves through fracture networks in enhanced geothermal systems. They are also engaged in testing new ways of monitoring carbon dioxide below ground.
It’s the discovery of knowledge that directly affects life today that keeps her excited. She thinks you can’t really be productive if you’re not excited about what you do. And geology still does that for her, especially when focused on one of the most emerging issues of today—the water-energy nexus.
“There’s one thing that still excites me,” she says. “You look at a rock and a bunch of lines on it, and we as geologists are just so interested in what those straight or curvy lines mean.”
The lines wouldn’t mean much to most of us. But geologists see the past and how it fits into the future, and Sharma wants to put that knowledge to work.