WHAT THEY LEARNED: Max Findley ’15

The history and chemistry double major completed two different theses, both related in some way to environmental science.

Like a growing number of Fords, Max Findley ’15 was a double major—in history and chemistry—and, as such, completed two theses. But though his subjects of study straddle different branches of the liberal arts, there is still a common string of inquiry related to environmental science running through them both.

For his chemistry thesis, “Novel Isotope Analysis of DDX Compounds in an Estuarine Environment,” Findley applied a novel technique for isotope analysis to the pesticide DDT with advisor Helen White, the director of the Environmental Studies Program. And his history project, “Laboratories of the American Century: How Pacific Atolls Became the Testing Sites for American Environmental Thought,” explored a history of a scientific program in Micronesia.

“Micronesia was where we exported ideas about warfare, weapons, science, and the environment, and those ideas interweaved on the atoll before returning to the United States,” says Findley, who is now working for an aquatic geochemistry lab at the University of Michigan. “Thus understanding Micronesia is central to understanding the United States. The atoll truly was the laboratory of the American Century.”


What inspired your thesis work?

[Assistant] Professor White actually helped me begin [my chemistry] project when she took me to a conference in Mobile, Ala., concerning the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the massive BP spill in the Gulf in 2010. At the conference, I met one of Helen’s collaborators, Christoph Aeppli, and he invited me to work for him at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Christoph introduced me to a novel technique for isotope analysis, something based on his Ph.D. dissertation. This technique (Chlorine Compound-Specific Isotope Analysis via Gas Chromatography-quadropole Mass Spectroscopy or Cl-CSIA via GC-qMS) was unique because it allowed for rapid isotope analysis of incredibly dilute samples. The technique’s high sensitivity allowed us to examine contaminated sediments where pollutants were at concentrations of 100 nanograms per gram of sediment or more. This was unprecedented. We applied the technique to DDT—the infamous pesticide—and its immediate breakdown products, collectively referred to as DDX compounds, to demonstrate the technique’s power. My thesis at Haverford was a continuation of that project.

And what about your history thesis?

A research paper I wrote in [Associate Professor Andrew] Friedman’s “History of World War II” class inspired this project. The paper examined how historical literature construed Pacific environments during and immediately after World War II. In the process, I became interested in how the U.S. administered Micronesia after it seized the islands and coral atolls—thin rings of calcified coral that just breach the ocean surface and surround a shallow, placid lagoon. Given my background in environmental science, I chose to focus on a hitherto unexamined program called Scientific Investigations in Micronesia (SIM), which was founded in 1949 to promote the investigation of Micronesian environments to inform U.S. administrators.

What are the implications of your work?

The major takeaway from my [chemistry] thesis was the limitations of this new and powerful technique. I pushed the technique to its limits, using incredibly dilute samples, which sometimes resulted in instructive failures. However, over the last year, I’ve started to build a library of data points about isotope enrichment in DDX compounds. Since each type of degradation has a characteristic isotopic enrichment, isotopes can be used as fingerprints. We hope, eventually, to be able to determine exact reaction mechanisms for each degradation pathway.

[My history] thesis represents the first historical analysis of SIM. SIM’s impact on Micronesia was minimal, but the program itself is incredibly useful for measuring administrators’ perceptions of atolls. It also directly connects the emergence of modern environmentalism to nuclear weapons testing. Historians have argued that weapons testing and the spread of nuclear fallout catalyzed the description of the Earth as an interconnected system, an idea that serves as the foundation of modern environmentalism. SIM provides a direct link between these two distinct events. Most importantly, SIM demonstrates the centrality of Micronesia to understanding the contemporary United States and how we perceive the world.


 Photo: Penrhyn Atoll, (cc) Ewan Smith

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.