Cave-Diving Northwestern Geologist Found Her Calling as a Kid


Patricia Beddows, assistant chair of Northwestern University's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, is one of two cave-diving scientists on the expedition exploring the Hoyo Negro where a teenager fell to her death more than 12,000 years ago. Will Schutt/MEDILL 

Most of us don't end up working the jobs we dreamed of as kids. There's just not that much room for astronauts, professional video gamers and movie stars. 

But Patricia Beddows, assistant professor and the assistant chair of Northwestern University's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has been playing in the dirt and digging tunnels since she was a child. 

Now, as a scientist, she is part of an expedition to Mexico's Hoyo Negro, meaning “black hole,” an underground, underwater cave system. There, divers discovered “Naia,” the oldest, most intact skeleton of an early Paleoamerican. Naia died as a teenager more than 12,000 years old.

Beddows co-authored a paper published last month in the journal Science, detailing Naia's discovery and her significance.

Naia, who died as a teenager, holds extremely far-reaching scientific implications, possessing mitochondrial DNA that links her to modern-day Native Americans. She very well may change our understanding of human evolution, by providing a genetic link between modern humans and the hunter-gatherers that crossed the Bering Strait land bridge between 17,000 and 26,000 years ago.

“Trish's role in the project was that she's a cave-diving geologist,” said Brad Sageman, the chair of Northwestern's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “The significance, to my understanding, has to do with the age of the skeleton, the fact that it speaks to early humans in North America and, for her to be down in the Yucatán Peninsula at that time, tells us that humans had penetrated deep into the Americas.”

“My love of just getting out and dirty and getting involved in earth sciences did start fairly early. My mother has told me that I had a particular fondness for tunneling, and I was digging a lot of earthen works and I do remember at one point her reprimanding me sternly because she was really afraid of collapse,” said Beddows. “So I had to switch from making tunnels to making trenches, which I was then allowed to put wooden covers and tarps over and sprinkle some dirt on. That was the best I could get,” said Beddows with a nostalgic smile.

“Trish” Beddows speaks clearly and quickly, a storyteller with an infectious laugh and science-filled descriptions about cave systems.

“Trish is a ball of fire, she's got endless energy,” said Sageman. “She goes in seemingly 100 directions all at once and somehow makes it work.”

Beddows was one of two cave-diving scientists on the Mexico-led mission to Hoyo Negro. She lent the expedition her expertise in the development of cave systems and the functions of groundwater in the Yucatán Peninsula, among other things. And she was one of the divers who noticed crystals growing on Naia's bones. The crystals could be dated and turned out to be just slightly younger than the skeleton.

“There's not very much water flow happening down there,” she said. “It's also got very low sediment. So one of the consequences of that is that all the bones are neatly laid out and visible. But even though it's very low sediment it's not zero sediment, so we do have a number of types of different sediments that we can harvest for extracting this environmental information to reconstruct what the past history of this cave site was like.”

She spent much of her childhood in Sudbury, Ontario, “in the middle of nowhere.” Her parents owned a tourist camp beside a lake, and it was there that Beddows explored her first digs. During her undergraduate studies that she found she could turn her digs into her life's work in geology.

“So during my junior year I took a course that was actually very squarely focused on caves,” she said. “And I just – I loved it. It brought together water, and energy, and climate, and chemistry, with dissolution. Cave systems are very dynamic, they're extremely valuable. About 25 percent of our world's drinking water comes from groundwater systems, where caves are transmitting the water. So globally they're very important, from a human perspective.”

She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in Ontario, from McMaster University's School of Geography and Earth Sciences, before heading to the University of Bristol in the Department of Geographical Sciences.

Beddows' received her Ph.D in geology there in 2004. Her thesis focused on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, specifically looking at hydrogeochemistry. “So looking at groundwater systems and the dynamic response of the groundwater system to things that are changing around, the changing boundary conditions of sea level, climate, and then also the internal changes.”

Originally published by Medill Reports Chicago



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