2013 Annual Letter to Graduate Alumni from EAPS Department Head

March 2013

I am delighted to write and share news from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Looking back on my first year as department head, I have a renewed appreciation for our emphasis on hard, quantitative science, interdisciplinary research, and strong, collaborative spirit. I am also reminded of our work’s important impact, especially in light of Hurricane Sandy, 2012’s record-breaking warm temperatures, last month’s asteroid flyby and meteorite impact in Russia, and the many devastating earthquakes that occur each year. 

I hope you’ve been keeping up with recent EAPS developments by reading our biannual e-newsletter EAPSpeaks, or through Facebook or Twitter. Let me share a few highlights.

The Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL), MIT’s center for subsurface energy science, has a new director, geophysicist Brad Hager, and a new home on the second floor of the Green Building. ERL’s new headquarters has enhanced our visibility and will allow us to work more effectively with our sponsors and across disciplines. We are deeply grateful to Norman and Madeleine Gaut and Shell whose gifts made this project possible. The move of ERL enables space optimization elsewhere in the Green Building and a long overdue renovation of our educational facilities, including classrooms and the undergraduate lounge.

Our students and faculty continue to conduct path-breaking research in all areas of the geosciences. Here are a few examples. Data collected by NASA’s GRAIL mission, led by planetary scientist Maria Zuber, showed an almost completely pulverized lunar interior, a seminal finding. Atmospheric chemist Paul O’Gorman produced an estimate (10%/K) for the rate at which tropical precipitation extremes intensify with global warming. And graduate student Terrence Blackburn, working with Sam Bowring, J. Taylor Perron, and research associate Francis Dudas, discovered that despite a geologically fractious history, ancient sections of North America have remained extremely stable for more than one billion years.

Faculty recruitment brought us three new talented assistant professors. In April 2012, we welcomed atmospheric chemist Colette Heald, who also holds an appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Planetary scientist Hilke Schlichting and geophysicist Germán Prieto will join us this summer. Longtime senior research scientist Mick Follows, who studies the connections between ocean circulation, biogeochemical cycles, and marine ecosystems, was also just appointed as associate professor with tenure. We are actively recruiting for several more positions in geophysics and geology, areas that will be strengthened as we bring on new faculty.

In other faculty news, Maria Zuber was appointed MIT’s Vice President for Research, and nominated by President Obama for a seat on the National Science Board, roles in which she will continue her strong advocacy for federal investment in university research. In his new role as associate department head, geochemist Tim Grove has focused on EAPS education, providing strong leadership and guidance. Atmospheric scientist Paul O’Gorman and geobiologist Tanja Bosak were both promoted to associate professor, and two notable Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate professors retired: atmospheric physicist Dick Lindzen after a 29-year career at MIT, and physical oceanographer Carl Wunsch, who has been a fixture in our department for more than 50 years. Sadly, we note the passing of Emeritus Professor Bill Brace, a legend in rock physics, who served as department head from 1981 through 1988.

Our faculty had a banner year for awards and honors, and I’d like to mention just a few. Atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon received the Vetlesen Prize, Sara Seager was selected the co-winner of the Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences, and Maria Zuber received the James R. Killian, Jr., Faculty Achievement Award, a prize given by MIT’s faculty “to recognize extraordinary professional achievement.” Tanja Bosak also received the Edgerton Award, the junior faculty equivalent of the Killian Award, marking the first time both award winners reside in the same department.

As strong as our department is, we face many challenges. Budget deficits have constrained government research funding and competition from our peers for faculty and students continues to be intense. Your financial support will help ensure that we remain one of world’s best academic programs in the geosciences.

My highest priority is to increase the number of students in EAPS who receive graduate fellowships. Graduate students play a critical role in EAPS by conducting advanced research and by teaching and mentoring undergraduates. They also help attract and retain world-class faculty, who come to MIT and remain here largely because of these talented young scientists. Graduate fellowships are key to attracting top minds, and your gift—no matter what the size—will make an impact. You can support our graduate students by making a contribution to one of our endowed fellowships. Our goal for both the M. Nafi Toksöz Fellowship Fund and the Theodore R. Madden Fellowship Fund is to reach $1 million in endowment, the level required to provide at least one student with tuition and stipend for an entire year, in perpetuity.

Another critical area of need is support for discretionary funding. While the use of these funds varies from year to year, we are increasingly allocating them toward lab equipment and instrumentation. State-of-the art technology is critical to many areas of earth science, but government funding for lab upgrades is extremely limited for both junior and mid-career faculty. MIT scientists are the best in the world, capable of conducting brilliant research even under less-than-optimal conditions. But imagine their progress if they had access to the most advanced lab equipment and instrumentation.

I offer my thanks for your continued support of EAPS and encourage you to visit us whenever your travels bring you to Cambridge. In the meantime, look for the next issue of EAPSpeaks or check out our website (http://eapsweb.mit.edu/news) and new Facebook page, where you will find the latest news and upcoming events.

Sincerely yours, 



Robert D. van der Hilst

P.S.  If you did not receive the first issue of EAPSpeaks, please send a valid e-mail address to eapsnewsletter [at] mit [dot] edu. Better yet, register for a permanent @alum.mit.edu alias on the MIT alumni website, http://alum.mit.edu/benefits/AlumniBenefits. 

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