Letter from the Head of Department - Spring 2013

Rob van der Hilst
Friday, May 31, 2013

Dear Friends,

It has been a sad and trying spring for MIT with the Boston Marathon bombings and the loss of one of our own—police officer Sean Collier.  These tragic events left many of us feeling overwhelmed and disoriented, but we took pride in the way the MIT community responded and the role it played in helping us recover.  

Tributes took place across campus—from a memorial service for Sean Collier attended by thousands, including Vice President Joe Biden, to a human chain stretching down Vassar Street one week after the attacks. The EAPS Building also showed its colors, with its LED lights displaying the shape of an American flag and a 300-foot-tall black, remembrance ribbon.

Against this somber backdrop, there have been many bright spots for our department. For instance, Sam Bowring was elected to the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, Susan Solomon received the Vetlesen Prize, and NASA selected MIT’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) project, co-led by Sara Seager, for a planned launch in 2018.  We also appointed two new faculty members:  longtime senior research scientist, Mick Follows, known for his computer models of marine microbes, was appointed as associate professor (with tenure), and Kristin Bergmann, whose work encompasses stratigraphy, sedimentology, geochemistry, and geobiology, will join us in the summer of 2015, after earning her PhD at Caltech and completing a Junior Fellowship at Harvard.  (We will write more about Kristin in the next issue of EAPSpeaks.)  

It has been an especially momentous year for Maria Zuber.  Maria 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 academic research. She also delivered the annual Killian Award Lecture, sharing findings from NASA’s Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, which she leads.

In other faculty news, two professors retired: atmospheric physicist Richard (Dick) Lindzen, after a 29-year career at MIT, and physical oceanographer Carl Wunsch, who has been a fixture at the Institute for more than 50 years.  Dick and Carl represented different faces of EAPS and, in particular, the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate (PAOC), and their active leadership will be missed.

You can read more about Carl’s work in the lead article of EAPSpeaks, which focuses on the oceans and the work of our scientists who seek to unlock their mysteries.  Also in this issue, you can learn about the “secret” lives of our graduate students, as revealed by atmospheric chemist Sarvesh Garimella, and about the Terrescope Program, a unique freshmen learning community led by Sam Bowring.

Other changes involve space. The headquarters of the Earth Resources Laboratory moved to the second floor of the Green building, into the space formerly occupied by the Lindgren Library.  The associated space moves inspired a major overhaul of EAPS' class rooms and allow the establishment of a hub for the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. The new classrooms and the Joint Program will be on the 8th floor, so the 8th and 9th floors will now form the core of the administration and education facilities of EAPS and the Joint Program.

I hope you will enjoy the current issue of EAPSpeaks and that I will see you at one of our upcoming events.  In the meantime, I wish you all a relaxing summer.

Sincerely yours,

Robert van der Hilst

P.S.  For up-to-the-minute EAPS news, please visit our website http://eapsweb.mit.edu/news or follow us on Facebook.  



Rob van der Hilst received his PhD in Geophysics from Utrecht University in 1990. After postdoctoral research at the University of Leeds (1990-1992) and the Australian National University (1992-1995) he joined the faculty of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) in 1996. From 2004 to 2012 he was the Director of the Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL) and since the beginning of 2012 he has been Head of EAPS. In addition to his work at MIT, Rob has been a Visiting Professor at the Institut de Physique de Globe de Paris (France).

Rob's cross-disciplinary and collaborative research focuses on understanding geological processes in Earth's deep interior, both on a regional scale – for instance, continental structure and evolution of Tibet, East Asia, and North America, the subduction of oceanic plates beneath western Pacific island arcs, the upper mantle transition zone beneath Hawaii, and the complex region just above the core mantle boundary beneath Asia and Central America – and the global scale, unraveling, for instance, the pattern and nature of mantle convection. The main tools he uses (and develops) are global reflection seismology and seismic tomography, but he integrates these findings with constraints from geology, (geomagnetic) plate reconstructions, mineral physics, and geodynamics.