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Last summer, Rachael Oleski ’06 (Erie, Pa.) conducted tests on soil from landslides during a National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at University of Oklahoma. By the end of the summer, she knew she wanted to learn more about how the landslides occurred and how they can be prevented.

Oleski, a civil engineering major with a French minor, is continuing her work this semester in a yearlong honors thesis, hypothesizing that the higher the carbonate content of a soil, the weaker it will be.

“For the REU project, we characterized the soil from small-scale landslides that occurred in Oklahoma,” says Oleski, who worked with Amy Cerato ’99, assistant professor of civil engineering and environmental science at University of Oklahoma.

The group concluded that the landslides were due to an overly steep slope and the soil’s high carbonate content. Oleski is testing soil samples from other borings from the same series of landslides.

“By testing the carbonate content at various depths for each boring, I want to try to correlate the slip circle [slope with circular slip surface] of the landslide with the carbonate content of the soil,” she says, adding that she then plans to place a known amount of calcium carbonate into clay soil and run direct shear tests [stability analyses] on those samples. “If the samples with a higher amount of calcium carbonate fail at a lower stress, then low soil strength corresponds to higher percentage of calcium carbonate.”

Finally, Oleski plans to examine soil from the area known as karst, a type of terrain usually formed on carbonate rock in which groundwater acts as a solvent to form a subsurface drainage system.

“This is the reason for many sinkholes in the area,” she says. “Instead of looking at the carbonate rock, I want to sample soil in the area and determine if the soil, not the rock, contains a high percentage of carbonates that have leached from the rocks. Perhaps the soil, as well as the rock, is responsible for the sinkholes in the area.”

Oleski, whose work is guided by Mary Roth ’83, professor and head of civil and environmental engineering, finds her project exciting because “I wanted to study a topic that has real-world applications and is of definite use to society. I love having the chance to participate in a rewarding research project such as a thesis.”

She adds that Roth has offered plenty of expertise and support.

“I love bouncing ideas back and forth and brainstorming,” Oleski says. “She’s always there to help me solve problems that arise while doing research.”

Cerato has continued to keep in touch with her about the project and honors committee members David Brandes, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Dru Germanoski, Dr. Ervin R. VanArtsdalen ’35 Professor and head of geology and environmental geosciences, have offered advice and support.

“I’m very grateful to be able to work with all of these professors,” she says, pointing out that she’s been pleased with Lafayette’s support for projects like her thesis. “Students at many other schools don’t get to do this type of research at the undergraduate level.”

Oleski adds that as a liberal arts college, Lafayette has provided her with the opportunity to minor in French.

“I wanted to go to a school where it was all right for an engineer to study a non-technical field as well,” she says. “I’ve definitely been able to do that here at Lafayette.”

In addition to researching landslides, Oleski was part of a group that examined issues related to the wetlands surrounding Lake Victoria in a National Science Foundation-funded program at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, during the summer of 2004. She also was a member of Lafayette’s concrete canoe team during her sophomore year.

“Right now I’m looking into going on to graduate school,” she says. “I want to continue along the research path since I’ve found it to be so intriguing and rewarding.”

Oleski is a member of campus and national chapters of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers and participates in the Landis Community Outreach Center’s Adopt-a-Grandparent and Adopt-a-Class program at Easton Area High School. She has also been a member of the film committee of Lafayette Activities Forum and Lafayette Environmental Awareness and Protection, and volunteered at the Safe Harbor Easton homeless shelter.

Categorized in: Academic News