Letter from the Head of Department - 2016

Rob van der Hilst
Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dear EAPS Alumni and Friends,

For EAPS, 2016 has brought many new faces, exciting achievements, and important new initiatives. Four new faculty members join our team in 2016/17: we welcome Tim Cronin PhD ‘14 (XII B) (climate science), Dr. Matěj Peč (structural geology), and Dr. Andrew Babbin (marine geochemistry) to MIT, and Ruben Juanes, CEE Associate Professor of Geophysics, who has accepted a joint appointment in EAPS.
In addition, 26 new graduate students have arrived, hailing from 11 countries, and our warmest thanks go to our Patrons and fellowship donors for helping to launch these talented young scientists on their paths to success.

By the time you read this, an instrument built by MIT students will
be well on its way to asteroid Bennu as part of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth by 2023. I was lucky enough to join Professor Richard Binzel, Principal Investigator and Instrument Scientist for REXIS, along with a group of EAPS alumni and friends, to celebrate the thrilling Atlas V rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. With this launch, more Pluto findings from New Horizons, and the recent discovery of potentially habitable exoplanets orbiting red dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1, it has been a banner year for EAPS planetary science. I hope you enjoy reading about some of these milestones here.

One of the greatest joys of being Head of Department is seeing EAPS faculty and students thrive, making huge research strides in the areas we study: Earth, Planets, Climate, and Origins and Evolution of Life. We are pleased to highlight some of our diverse “Life” research in this edition of EAPS Scope, from past and future mass extinctions to life on other planets to life in the oceans, to the earliest branches of the Tree of Life. We acknowledge the tremendous support of the Simons Foundation for funding much of this innovative research. 

Having safe, modern labs, and attractive, functional space for faculty and students is vital to our continuing success. We all know that the 51-year old Green Building is outdated and that we have outgrown our space. So I am delighted to report that MIT is considering new plans to update infrastructure and the lecture hall 54-100, to create new labs and to construct an addition that will both expand our facilities and accommodate MIT’s new Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), led by Professor John Fernandez. With ESI’s interest in climate science and Earth systems, it makes perfect sense for EAPS and ESI to co-locate in an inspiring convening space for environmental education and programming at the heart of the campus. We are striving to raise the $35M needed to bring this exciting vision to fruition. If you would like to learn more, and help us accelerate cutting-edge scientific discovery in new labs and an exciting new headquarters for Earth Sciences and Environmental Solutions at MIT, please contact me.

Thank you for your continuing interest and support for the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Together we can advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge, answer fundamental questions about Earth, Planets, Climate, and Life, and provide the scientific basis for future solutions to some of the most challenging problems facing our planet.

Yours sincerely,

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.