He Digs Rocks

He Digs typography
Rocks typography
By Patricia DeViva
It’s an unremarkable stretch of road; an exit ramp that’s a
way to somewhere else, not a destination. Unless you’re
Matthew S. Finkenbinder, associate professor of geology at
Wilkes University. Finkenbinder, or Dr. F, or “Fink” as some
of his students call him, shows his students that on this
weathered strip of road, there is a tall rock face that serves
as a fascinating map to the past—and it measures time not in
centuries, or millenia, but millions of years.
It is here that Finkenbinder and his team of seven stratigraphy and sedimentation course students pull over in a minivan full of gear for a four-hour outdoor lab. As cars speed by, Finkenbinder explains the objective of the lab. “Why are we here?” he asks. “To observe and describe an exposure of sedimentary rocks.” The students gather what they’ll need: hard hats, reflective gear, hammers, field books and pencils, traditional metal compasses and measuring tape; surprisingly low-tech gear for scientific research.

In fact, it’s the absence of digital screens and gadgets—and being outdoors—that makes these outings so important to students. “A common attribute of students that are in environmental science and geology is a curiosity about nature and the love of the outdoors,” said Finkenbinder. Multiple field trips throughout the term are an important part of geology coursework.

Large rock mountainside with students and Dr. Finkenbinder
“Our research is field-based, going out to get rocks and core samples,” he added, “and when we come back to campus they tell me how important these field experiences are to their personal and professional growth.” Erika Wintersteen, who added the geology major after doing a senior project with Finkenbinder, agrees. “The outdoor labs are my favorite,” she said. “Time flies in Dr. Finkenbinder’s labs, because he keeps you engaged,” she said. “I’m never bored.”

As the students move more closely to the rock face, or “outcropping,” they note its layer-cake construction in their field books. “We have three formations here at this outcrop, the oldest of them that we’re seeing right here is between 360 to 320 million years old,” he said. As they measure the strata, or layers, in the rock face, touching what our world was made of millions of years ago, they are literally revealing its geologic history, which is important for the geologic mapping of the region. The identification of aggregate deposits, such as crushed stone and sand used in construction, as well as ores, or valuable minerals, and aquifers that transmit water to wells and springs, is critical for geologists. Finkenbinder still finds wonder in these discoveries. “I always see something new in an outcrop, which makes it endlessly fascinating.”


While the job opportunities for the geologist are many and varied, one of Finkenbinder’s former students chose, as he did, to teach. It began for then-sophomore environmental engineering major Ellen Weber Heilman ’19, quite by chance. “I was home for the summer, and I got a call,” she said. Finkenbinder’s research team was going to Newfoundland, Canada, and a spot opened up at the last minute. “It was my first time ever camping and I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said.

The destination was Norman’s Pond in Newfoundland, where for two weeks the small research team camped outdoors and collected core samples. Although a little intimidated at first, Heilman ultimately gained experience, confidence—and knowledge. “I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in a short period of time,” she recalled. “It was constant information, so I just listened. It was fascinating.”

That experience ended up being a turning point for Heilman. That summer, she switched majors to earth and environmental science, went on to get a master’s degree in education and now teaches earth science at a private school in Maryland. “I had no intention of being a teacher at the time, but working with Dr. Finkenbinder and having him as a mentor really influenced the way I teach now and my desire to communicate a love of science to my 10th graders.” she said. “My number one goal is to be as passionate about science as Dr. Finkenbinder is and to inspire my students, too.”

The research at Norman’s Pond was published this year, and Heilman was listed as a contributor.

Top: Ellen Weber Heilman taking water samples at Norman’s Pond in Newfoundland in the summer of 2017. Bottom: Matthew Finkenbinder with a core sample from Norman’s Pond.
Ellen Weber holding up lake water sample
Matthew Finkenbinder with a core sample from Norman’s Pond.
Top: Ellen Weber Heilman taking water samples at Norman’s Pond in Newfoundland in the summer of 2017. Bottom: Matthew Finkenbinder with a core sample from Norman’s Pond.
“And so, in everything I do, I’m a blend of my favorite professors and teachers, taking elements of what they did that I loved, and passing it on to my students.”
– Matthew S. Finkenbinder, associate professor of geology at Wilkes University
In seeing how he relates to his students, it’s not surprising that from a young age Finkenbinder wanted to be a teacher. A professor, in fact. “I grew up in a college town, and my friend’s father was a music professor,” he explained. “So we used to hang out on campus, in his office, with instruments everywhere and his students would come in. It just seemed exciting.” In middle school he became interested in science, but it wasn’t until his last semester in college that he discovered geology. “As an environmental science undergrad, one of the last classes I took was geology, and it just blew me away, and it changed everything,” he said with a laugh. “And I thought, that’s it. Rocks!”
Finkenbinder went on to get a master’s in geology, then a PhD. He credits his early mentors for fostering his love for the subject. “I had so many good teachers and professors, going back to grade school, secondary and then college. They all profoundly impacted me. They made the material accessible and exciting,” he said. “And so, in everything I do, I’m a blend of my favorite professors and teachers, taking elements of what they did that I loved, and passing it on to my students.”
So how does Finkenbinder get his students interested in rocks in a digital age? “When I teach, I try to emphasize why students should care about the material. In discussing minerals, I tell students to pull out their smartphone,” he said. “There are so many rare earth elements and minerals in that smartphone. And they all have to be mined and geologists have to find them. Those resources have to be extracted in a sustainable and clean way,” he said. “And that’s when they’re hooked.”

Wintersteen is definitely hooked, and now is considering many of the career paths she can take when she graduates with her geology degree next year. “Over the summer, I had an internship with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and I would like to continue doing government work once I graduate,” she said. “It was satisfying knowing that I was doing something good for the environment and also doing work that I love.”

Pictured above: Finkenbinder leads seven students on a four-hour research field trip to study a rock outcropping in Luzerne, Pa.
Above: Students draw rock formations in their field notebooks.
Dr. Finkenbinder headshot
Dr. Matthew S. Finkenbinder, professor in the Biology and Earth System Sciences department of Wilkes University, received a bachelor’s degree in geoenvironmental studies from Shippensburg University, a master’s degree in geology from West Virginia University, and a doctorate in geology from the University of Pittsburgh. His primary research interests include paleoclimatology, Quaternary stratigraphy, stable isotope geochemistry, paleolimnology, and radiometric dating methods. In 2022, Finkenbinder’s research was published in Nature, one of the top journals in the world, publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology.