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Susty Student Spotlight: Grace Mendolia ‘24 on Mapping Dartmouth’s Geoexchange Potential

Interview conducted by Rachel Kent '21, Sustainability Program Assistant

A geothermal test well is drilled on the Dartmouth Green in 2019. (Photo by Chris Johnson)

Sustainable Dartmouth: Where does your passion for sustainability and climate work come from? Feel free to start as far back as you’d like, including childhood.

Grace Mendolia: My family was always very outdoorsy–all hikers, climbers, paddlers. I grew up going on hiking trips and was very fortunate to have access to outdoor spaces. I was also a science nerd–I thought I was going to major in chemistry. At the same time, my generation, more so than any other generation, has grown up being taught about climate change. When I was thinking about what I like to do outside of school and what I like to do within school, there was really nothing else that made sense to study, especially at an ethical level. In college, the way Meredith Kelly taught about it in Earth Sciences (EARS) 01 made it all click. 

SD: Speaking of Meredith Kelly–you're working with her to map the subsurface of Dartmouth campus. What brought you to this research?

GM: I took EARS 01 with her my freshman fall, and I thought she was the coolest professor. She noticed that I had this interest in sustainable energy, and identified an opportunity for me in a new geo-exchange project to combine that interest with geology research. So in my junior spring, I took a leave term, and got to focus entirely on the project.

SD: And for those who might not be as familiar with your project, do you mind just elaborating a bit on what exactly that project exactly is–like a mini poster presentation, if you will, sans the actual poster?

GM: Dartmouth is beginning to drill for geo-exchange to replace the steam-based heating and cooling system to low-temperature hot water. One of the ways you can get low-temperature hot water is by sending water through pipes underground- it stabilizes the heat to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a baseload temperature for heating or cooling. We were trying to determine what style of geo-exchange would work in Hanover. So I got all this data from the drilling company on any test wells that had been dug and from FO&M on any renovation that had been done at Dartmouth. I took all that data, cleaned it, and plotted it on a map to understand what the bedrock surface of Hanover looks like and to model the sediment on top of it. That both gives us useful information for the geo-exchange project, like where you can put different geo-exchange technologies, or even just tell the drillers, “Okay, you're going to encounter bedrock five feet down versus 100 feet down.” We can also map the glacial history of Hanover by looking at the sediments. 

SD: And had any of this research ever been done before?

GM: The specific technique of mapping the sediments around Hanover hasn’t ever been done before. But we can definitely tie this to other types of dating studies that have been done, like understandings of the glacier that was all over New England 14,000 years ago.

SD: That’s pretty–ahem, groundbreaking. So, you're continuing to work on this project–where exactly are you planning to take all this research next?

GM: I’m coming at it from two fronts, with my current internship in the Sustainability Office and my EARS thesis. Not a lot of students know that we're even switching to geo-exchange, so I’m trying to spread awareness around questions like, what is geoexchange? What is this construction we're seeing, and why is this good for Dartmouth–why should we take pride in what's going on? 

I’m also continuing to map to inform the drilling projects and to continue looking at the glacial history of Hanover. For my thesis, I'm trying to map the water table and modeling the sediments with more granularity to expand our geological knowledge on Hanover. That way, if, in the next ten years, which is the timeline for this project, we find out that there's this new geothermal technology that seems like it might be feasible for Dartmouth, then we’ll already know what the subsurface looks like. We’ll be able to say, okay, yeah, this would work with our groundwater system and with the sediments that we have here, and pivot to that newer technology. 

SD: Why are you passionate about combining Dartmouth’s mission of research and education with our campus operations–in other words, using our campus as a site for experimentation and research? 

GM: My project was an incredibly enriching experience for me, and there's a huge opportunity for this to happen with students in many different fields. It’s also a way to make the invisible visible. Before working on this project, I hadn’t thought about Dartmouth’s heating and cooling system at all. Students usually view [energy systems] construction as something that’s annoying and loud–now, though, I can reply, “No, this is something I’m involved in!” And that could be the case for other students too, with whatever EARS or soil biology class they’re in. They, too, can say, “We go to this construction site and take samples here, and it’s actually part of the president's plan to have real carbon zero at Dartmouth,” which is something students and faculty have been pushing for for a really long time. 

SD: You’re (sadly!) graduating this spring. How might you bring the lessons you’ve learned from being involved with the geoexchange project forward with you after Dartmouth?

GM: This has made me think a lot about place-based energy systems–what works in Hanover is not necessarily what will work at Stanford, or Brown, or any other college. Every community has different needs in a different environment. It’s so vital to think about the technologies and practices that work for every unique community. 


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