Letter from the Head of Department - Spring 2014

Rob van der Hilst
Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Dear Friends,

We are about to wrap up another busy and successful year, and after a long (but beautiful) winter we are all looking forward to summer. This year EAPS will graduate just under 40 doctoral, masters, and bachelors students, and I look forward to toasting them and their families and friends at receptions in their honor in the coming days. It is no small thing to secure a degree from MIT, and we salute the accomplishments of our students and the hard work of their advisors.

In Institute news of particular interest to EAPS, MIT recently announced the formation of a major new campus wide initiative on the environment. The new venture will form an umbrella for environment related research, promoting transformative, cross-disciplinary collaboration. This is an important development for MIT and, indeed, the world, and it offers exciting new opportunities for EAPS and for the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. With our own Susan Solomon (the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Sciences) as its founding director, the Initiative is already off to a great start and I look forward to building stronger and deeper ties across campus, for instance with colleagues in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

The recent years have been very rewarding in terms of honor and recognition of EAPS faculty, students, and research and administrative staff. The pages that follow give a more complete tribute, but in in my writing to you I would like to single out two members of the EAPS leadership team. First, Tim Grove, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Geology and Associate Department Head for Education, was selected this year to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences and also to receive the 2014 Goldschmidt Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the Geochemical Society. I thank Tim for his leadership of the education and communication programs and for his many other contributions to the governance of the Department. Second, Michael Richard, our former Human Resources administrator and current Administrative Officer, was awarded an Infinite Mile Award by the School of Science for going over-and-above normal duties and for setting standards of excellence for all staff. We are all proud of Tim and Michael's contributions and accomplishments and congratulate them wholeheartedly on their highly deserved honors.

With much joy and a humbling sense of departmental history I also reflect back on the inaugural William F. Brace Lecture, named for rock physicist and former department head Bill Brace who passed away in 2012. Honoring Bill Brace's deep and lasting legacy as the first Head of EAPS, the annual Brace Lecture is being established as a new event, intended to reflect and showcase the full disciplinary diversity of the Department. This year's speaker, John Grotzinger, former EAPS faculty member and Earth Resources Laboratory Director and now at Caltech, set a high bar, giving a powerfully inspiring talk about the science behind NASA's Curiosity Rover mission for which he is Chief Scientist. It was great to have John back on campus, even for a day or two, and we look forward to more talks of this caliber in year's to come.

Looking beyond Commencement, I hope to see many EAPS alumni at this year's Alumni Association sponsored Tech Day "The Future of Planet Earth" on June 7 where President Reif and I will be introducing a morning of compelling talks exploring what we know about the emergence of life, the Earth, its systems, and the stresses that are inherent as well as imposed by human activity. EAPS faculty members speaking at this event include hurricane and climate expert Kerry Emanuel, planetary geomorphologist Taylor Perron, geobiologoist Tanja Bosak, and the author of our lead story Sara Seager, and they are complemented by John Lienhard (Mechanical Engineering) and Christopher Knittel (Sloan).

I hope you will enjoy the current issue of EAPSpeaks. In the meantime, I wish you all a great summer!

Sincerely yours,

Robert van der Hilst


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.