Interview with Professor Maria Łanczont on paleogeographic research and women in science

We invite you to read the interview with Professor Maria Łanczont from the Department of Geomorphology and Palaeogeography of the Institute of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, who since February 2021 has been a member of AcademiaNet - a prestigious portal for women with outstanding academic success. The interview was conducted by: Ewa Kawałko-Marczuk and Katarzyna Skałecka.

Why did you choose geography as your major? Have you thought about scientific work from the beginning?

I graduated from the 1st High School. J. Słowackiego in Przemyśl and already then I was interested in geography in the regional sense, not in some particular part of geography. I decided to study geography with a specialization in climatology in Lublin, although Przemyśl was naturally close to Krakow. I finished my studies in 1973. Then there was a short period when I hesitated what to do - whether to start doctoral studies, as I had such an opportunity in Warsaw. My family life turned out so that I preferred to stay in Lublin, and there was also a job offer at the UMCS Department of Physical Geography (now a department) with prof. Adam Malicki, the founder of Lublin geography and - as I learned years later - also a graduate of the J. Słowacki in Przemyśl. I was able to do my PhD while still under his supervision. At that time, the research interests of prof. Malicki moved towards morphometric research on the continental scale. Several of these PhDs have been completed, including mine, where I studied Australia and New Zealand. This was pioneering research. Now we have severe tools to conduct them, and then we worked with extremely laborious and time-consuming methods. After my doctorate, I became more familiar with geomorphological and palaeogeographic issues in various ranges and started to work on loess research.

The loess research in our plant at that time was of significant importance, and it could be said that here in Lublin, a loess research centre was established, important in the country. Prof conducted innovative and fascinating research on loess. Adam Malicki. He had several interesting concepts that later turned out to be very accurate. Then the department was headed by prof. Henryk Maruszczak and prof. Józef Wojtanowicz. Several research interests dealt with aeolian processes and research on loess - dusty sediment of aeolian origin, so it was natural that I joined in and stayed with it. I chose Poland SE as the research area, i.e. the area of ​​the Carpathian loess province in the Przemyśl section of the foothills and foothills because these studies were not conducted on a larger scale h prof studied individual profiles. Malicki, and prof. Maruszczak. Based on my research, I have presented the regularities of occurrence, mechanisms of formation and transformation of loess covers in this area of ​​varied relief. I have demonstrated the autochthonous nature of the Carpathian loess and their leading lithological features. I have developed a diagram of their stratigraphy. On the other hand, the main area of ​​interest of the Lublin loess school was, of course, the Lublin Upland.

What are you currently doing in your research?

I am constantly researching loess. Lessa is a very interesting sediment because it is formed in a quasi-continuous manner and is an excellent archive of environmental changes over an extended period of time. For the area of ​​Poland, these have been changed for at least several hundred thousand years, because at this age there are loess covers, and changes in warm and cold periods can be observed in them, so through various research methods, it is possible to recreate old environments, in other words - palaeoenvironment and palaeoclimatic cycles. The research, which I conducted mainly in south-eastern Poland, included, among others, determination of the origin of aeolian material, directions of loess-forming winds, deposition conditions, lithostratigraphy and typology of periglacial dusty deposits, as well as post-sedimentation diagenesis processes. After establishing cooperation with my colleagues from Ukraine, mainly from Lviv and Kyiv, I extended my loess research to  ​​northwestern Ukraine and later to further areas - this is how I got more or less to the Dnieper valley and the Black Sea coast. There, the time possibilities for reconstruction are much wider because the sediments were not destroyed, as in most of the loess areas of Poland, by ice sheets or during the phases of the preglacial climate with active morph-forming processes appropriate to these conditions. An important result of this joint work was developing the stratigraphic scheme of the oldest loess in the western part of Ukraine.

I also dealt with glacial phenomena and periglacial processes because there are traces of the oldest glaciation in these lands in south-eastern Poland and northwestern Ukraine. Therefore, we conducted research related to the farthest extent of the ice sheet, the sediments forming at that time, and the reconstruction of their range in the San and Dniester valleys. The result of these works was, among others, reconstruction of the main stages of morphogenesis and the style of progression of the ice sheet in its maximum range and development of the Quaternary stratigraphy of the San-Dniester riverside.

Another trend is research related to the shaping of river valleys, mainly the Dniester and San. Based on the analysis of the terrace system, we aimed at determining the stages of their palaeogeographic development. The so-called fore-valley (pre-gorge) stage of development of the middle Dniester valley, which spanned a significant part of the Pliocene up to the Lower Pleistocene, studied the traces of flows in Podolia of the old river systems when the river network was just being formed.

To these palaeogeographic issues, there were also studies of loess paleolithic sites located in SE Poland (the Vistula and San valleys and their outflows) and Ukraine (valleys in the Dniester and Pripyat basin). The Palaeolithic population eagerly used such specific places as headlands, edges at the confluence of rivers, from where it was easy to observe the migrating game. The camps were often set up several times in the same place by representatives of different Paleolithic cultures. Therefore, these are geo-archaeological research carried out jointly with archaeologists both in Poland and in Ukraine. Furthermore, these studies, i.e. the reconstruction of the environment in which former Paleolithic communities lived, are continued up to the present day.

These are fascinating issues; we managed, among others develop sites that record the oldest traces of human presence in the western part of Ukraine or find the environmental context for ancient traces of settlement, e.g. in the Secret valley in Podolia or the Tisza, in the southern part of the Ukrainian Carpathians, as well as traces of the younger Upper and Late Paleolithic, which are located in the eastern part of the Polish Carpathians, in the Sandomierz Basin and Upland, in Podolia, in Volyn.

How do you work? Do you combine fieldwork with stationary work in a laboratory?

A geomorphologist studies the forms and processes shaping the relief of the earth's surface. Palaeogeography deals with a broader context, trying to recreate ancient climatic conditions and processes responsible for forming ancient landscapes. These are multi-tool or interdisciplinary research, i.e. they require the cooperation of very different specialists. Our task is to create teams of specialists in various fields and collect information resulting from detailed studies of sediments that we try to find in the field, properly sample them, develop them, define the geomorphological context with the environment and then examine them in detail in laboratory conditions. We work with specialists from very different centres, Poland and Ukraine, mainly because we focus our research there.

We manage to solve financial matters through grants. There were many these grants, some I managed, partly I participated, I was invited to cooperate. Recent projects were devoted to, for example, the reconstruction of the direction of the winds that formed loess covers (grant from Prof. Jerzy Nawrocki) and the origin of the dusty material building the loess covers. Currently, we have started implementing a large grant from the National Science Center, in which we also deal with these problems, but also with the issue of local and regional and global influences on the formation of loess covers in the entire Ukrainian part of the Dnieper valley.

I participate in research dealing with the Pleistocene period, which precedes the present Holocene, and with Holocene themes in our work. To these threads, I would include cooperation with archaeologists in reconstructing Holocene changes in the natural environment in the peri-Carpathian loess plateau based on very detailed research carried out in the catchment area of ​​a small river valley. We have obtained a fascinating picture of changes on a microregional scale, resulting from the spatial and temporal variability of land use by pre-and early-historical communities. One of the topics was research on the burial mounds built by the people of the Corded Ware culture in the Subcarpathian cemetery. Recently, we have also dealt with an attempt to assess the age of brick objects based on geomagnetic research and determine the age of bricks as part of the recently completed NCN project by prof. Jerzy Nawrocki, thanks to which regional curves of changes in inclination and intensity of the geomagnetic field from northern and south-eastern Poland were developed, which will be the basis for archaeomagnetic dating of ceramic objects from the last millennium of unknown or uncertain age. My task in this project was to cooperate with archaeologists to select medieval brick buildings, historical studies and verification of the age of bricks, and participation in taking samples. Why just brick? Because the brick keeps a certain message about the geomagnetic field parameters from the time of firing.

Could you indicate any places that are geomorphologically interesting and worth visiting?

I have a great fondness for the Carpathians because, in addition to researching the loess in the foreland and on the edge of the Carpathians, I collaborated with colleagues from Krakow in the palate-environmental reconstruction of Palaeolithic and declining Palaeolithic sites in the Carpathians.

One of such places, absolutely unique, is Obłazowa Skała - a typical Jurassic limestone rock, located in the Nowotarska Valley in the Białka valley, on the extension of the Pieniny rock range, in the town of Nowa Biała. In this Obłazowa Skala, there is a cave - small, it seems not very attractive, in which there are traces of human existence from the last ice age, very ancient for the Carpathians. Perhaps it would not be so important, but the Carpathians were considered an area of ​​acumen, unfriendly to humans, so scientists are wondering where, at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, there may be such traces indicating that it was a Palaeolithic sanctuary, In, for example, a bone artefact with reliefs was found, which resembles a boomerang known from Australia with a crescent shape, so it was even more fascinating. At the foot of this rock, the Federmesser culture site was discovered - a camp with traces of a hut—reconstruction of the plant cover based on pollen analysis.

It was interesting that there are places haunted by people at intervals of thousands of years somewhere in Podhale because there are still traces of the Magdalenian culture there. It was a trail, and this rock formed an element in the sculpture visible from a distance and giving distant visibility, such as a location and orientation point. From the top of Obłazowa Skała, you can see the The Tatra Mountains, the Gorce ranges, the Beskid Sądecki ranges, and the ridge of Babia Góra. Now the question is - how did it happen? Where did these people travel? Archaeologists are very careful and do not give final verdicts. Was it a stopping point for people of various Paleolithic cultures, probably somewhere from the south, because some of the artefacts found in the cave are made of rocks found on the southern side of the Tatra Mountains.

Other places that I like from the geological and palaeogeographic point of view are, of course, the beautiful valley of the San in the Carpathian Foothills, Skała Podolska - a small town in Podolia in the Zbrucz river valley, where there is an absolutely unique geological profile, which we also studied, and Roksolana's loess profile in the Dniester Limestone, which is widely regarded as one of the complete terrestrial Quaternary registers in Ukraine, with an impressive thickness of> 50m, when compared with other profiles in the Black Sea region. Interestingly, the results of his research to date (many years, many teams) are very controversial and often contradictory. We also researched with colleagues from Ukraine, and now we are waiting for the review results.

You have become a member of Academia.Net - a prestigious portal for women who are successful in science. Do you think it is difficult to be a woman in science? Have you noticed any changes in this area over the years, or does the gender in your field of expertise not matter?

In general, learning success depends on equal proportions on organization, determination, passion and luck, but this is probably important regardless of what we do. It would help if you also had a good team and good cooperation - then everything is possible to do.

The AcademiaNet portal draws attention to something else, and this is such a European observation. Many women in science have very significant achievements, but these women go unnoticed by decision-makers on various issues. As the authors of the portal point out - only 21% of the highest-paid professorships in the EU are occupied by women; in some countries, the proportion is even lower, and believe that the under-representation of women in leadership positions in academia is an untapped potential. However, there is a lack of tools to assist policymakers in finding proven female experts. Moreover, AcademiaNet is a portal that collects information about women in science to show decision-makers that there are people who have the right qualifications, knowledge, determination, success, are experts that should be noted on various occasions, e.g. appointing various scientific bodies or organizing panels. This is such a resource that it can be consulted at any time.

AcademiaNet is a European initiative currently managed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. It was established relatively recently, in 2010, and it already registers over 3,200 women, including 51 from Poland. Most of the Polish women represent various fields of biology and sociology, political, humanistic, and artistic sciences.

Following the established rules, you cannot enter the portal yourself. Outstanding women scientists are nominated to AcademiaNet by 43 research partner organizations according to strict selection criteria. Only two scientific units can submit candidates in Poland - the National Science Center and the Foundation for Polish Science. The NCN nominated me. On the other hand, at the Foundation, I carried out several projects - the aforementioned research on prehistoric settlement in the Podkarpacie upland and research related to the attempt to discover or locate a settlement of mammoth hunters in the region of Halicz in the Dniester valley were supported.


    Monika Kusiej
    Date of addition
    5 August 2021