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Soil Detective Featured in National Exhibit


UCR Soil Detective Featured in Soil Science Exhibit at Smithsonian Museum

Graduate student Patricia Menchaca, an expert in forensic soil science, is one of only 15 soil scientists selected nationwide for the display

(July 28, 2008)

Patricia Menchaca is a graduate student working toward her doctorate in soil science at UC Riverside.  Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications. (Additional images below.)Enlarge

Patricia Menchaca is a graduate student working toward her doctorate in soil science at UC Riverside. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications. (Additional images below.)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Patricia Menchaca, a forensic soil scientist at UC Riverside, is one of only 15 soil scientists selected nationwide for an exhibit, titled Dig It! The Secrets of Soil, currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. After approximately 18 months, the exhibit will travel, until 2014, to other museums in the country.

At UCR, Menchaca, a graduate student working toward her doctorate in soil science, works in the lab of Robert Graham, a professor of soil mineralogy in the Department of Environmental Sciences.

Intended for children, the exhibit Menchaca is a part of includes a brief interview with her in which she answers questions pertaining to her research and her interest in becoming a soil scientist.

"The display is geared toward inspiring children to become soil scientists," Menchaca said. "By interacting with the display, they get to know 15 different soil scientists and learn about soils."

The display consists of a set of postcards for all 50 states of the United States, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. When one of the postcards is touched, it flips around to reveal information pertaining to soil that is characteristic of that state. A different section of the display invites viewers to "Meet Soil Scientists." Menchaca is one of the 15 soil scientists that visitors can "meet."

Currently at UCR, Menchaca is creating a soil database that she expects will help solve crime. "Soil samples from the shoes and fingernails of, say, a murder suspect can be matched with information in the database, which could inform investigators of where the suspect was before he or she was apprehended," she said.

Graham, her graduate advisor, said he was excited to see Menchaca featured in the soils exhibit at the Smithsonian. "Tricia has worked very hard on an important and intriguing application of soil science," he said. "With help from Marianne Stam, a criminalist with the California Department of Justice, Tricia has tackled the challenging task to develop and test a prototype forensic soil database. Soil samples commonly constitute important trace evidence, but it is often difficult to determine the source of the sample. Tricia's work is an important step in that direction."

Menchaca's love of soil inspired her to get through college. She came to UCR in 2000 to study anthropology, and subsequently earned two bachelor's degrees (in anthropology and geology).

She grew up in Orange County, Calif., and moved at age 15 to Temecula, Calif., where she attended Temecula Valley High School. Subsequently, she attended community college and transferred to UCR to study anthropology.

"A geology course I took at UCR intrigued me so much that I stayed an extra year to study geology," Menchaca said. "I will never forget the first time I learned to texture a soil. I remember thinking, in those quiet moments of wetting the soil and rubbing it through my fingers, that everything I ever loved about my life revolved around soil, rocks, people, and Earth history. Many of my fondest childhood memories came back to me at that moment."
The display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, consists of a set of postcards for all 50 states of the United States, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. Image credit: Boston Productions, Inc.Enlarge

The display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, consists of a set of postcards for all 50 states of the United States, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. Image credit: Boston Productions, Inc.

Information revealed when the postcard for California is touched in the display.  Image credit: Boston Productions, Inc.Enlarge

Information revealed when the postcard for California is touched in the display. Image credit: Boston Productions, Inc.

Enlarge

"Meet Soil Scientists" is a special section of the display, and includes a badge for UC Riverside's Patricia Menchaca, a graduate student in the Department of Environmental Sciences.

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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