Letter from the Head of Department - 2015

Rob van der Hilst
October 1, 2015

Dear Alumni and Friends,

Attention has been riveted on Pluto since the New Horizons mission began beaming back those first startling images of the icy dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. It made us all very proud to see EAPS alumnae, faculty, and students on NASA TV, the news, and on the internet this summer, and to reflect on EAPS scientists’ role in this historic mission. We’re especially mindful of the contribution of the late Jim Elliot, professor of planetary science and physics at MIT, who discovered Pluto’s atmosphere. A number of Jim’s former graduate students, including Cathy Olkin ’88, PhD ’96 and Leslie Young, PhD ‘94, are now playing leading roles in the New Horizons mission. I am delighted to report that, in recognition of Jim’s legacy as a scientist and mentor, Cathy and Terry Olkin ’88 have made a generous gift to launch fundraising for a new James L. Elliot (1965) Graduate Student Support Fund to benefit future generations of planetary scientists.

Earth. Planets. Climate. Life. EAPS research and educational programs are motivated by the quest to understand these overlapping and interconnected systems, the need to train the next generation of earth and planetary scientists, and the obligation to provide the data and scientific knowledge that leaders in government and industry need to better prepare for what is to come. With climate change now on MIT’s radar and regular newsflashes about its impacts clamoring for our attention, this issue of EAPS Scope highlights our climate research, from the fundamental to the more applied. From paleoclimate and causes of mass extinctions, to present day atmospheric trends, carbon sequestration, the waxing and waning of polar icecaps, the influence of local climates on landslides, and research into the origins of greenhouse gases, here you can read about how EAPS scientists are unraveling the mysteries of the planet’s complex climate systems.

As 35 new graduate students from eight countries settle into EAPS and the MIT-WHOI Joint Program for Oceanography this year, please remember it is your financial support that provides the fuel to keep the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences vibrant and strong. We offered 16 student fellowships this year thanks to the generosity of alumni and friends! Our long-term vision is to be able to provide fellowship support to all EAPS graduate students in the two years leading up to their general exam. Towards this goal, we aim to expand our cadre of ‘climate fellows’ (adding to the Norman C. Rasmussen Fellowships generously endowed last year by Neil Rasmussen ‘76, SM ‘80* and Anna Winter Rasmussen) by adding at least five new endowed fellowships over the next five years—ensuring we continue to attract the brightest and best climate scientists to MIT. We owe it to our future. I invite you to learn more about our scientists and students by viewing our short video which reveals the core of our research and our mission: http://bit.ly/eaps-mission

With gratitude,

Rob van der Hilst
EAPS Department Head and Schlumberger Professor of Earth Sciences


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. Since 2004 he has been the Director of the Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL). In addition to his work at MIT, Rob has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Utrecht (The Netherlands) and the Institut de Physique de Globe de Paris (France).

Rob’s research interests include: Seismic imaging of the Earth’s interior structure from reservoir to planetary scales (travel time and waveform tomography; inverse scattering); Geodynamics of convergent plate boundaries and the mode of mantle convection; Heterogeneity and anisotropy of Earth’s crust and upper mantle; Continental evolution.