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Active Earth

by Mardy Fones No Comment

EES researchers study Earth’s history while the planet is still making it.

Observing fishermen on Bangladesh’s fragile waterways.

In the College of Arts and Science, if you’re going to study Earth and environmental sciences (EES), you get out of the classroom.

So in the Cascade Range of Washington State, Professor Calvin Miller and his students examine Mount St. Helens. Beside a river in Bangladesh, Associate Professors Jonathan Gilligan and Steven Goodbred Jr. help students try to find answers to that country’s fresh water needs. And in frozen Antarctica, Professor Molly Miller tracks environmental changes in the face of global warming.

As wide ranging as those topics and locations seem, they are all part of how the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences studies, teaches and interprets Earth’s history—its age and origin as recorded in rocks and the landscape—as well as how geological processes affect modern environmental and ecological systems.

“This department is a gem,” says David Furbish, chair of the department. “The faculty is spectacular. We’re getting applications from students that match those at the best schools.” Faculty members are consistent in receiving grants, including funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). “We’re not surprised when people from NSF ask us to serve on science review panels—a measure of the respect that these folks, representing the Earth sciences community, hold for the accomplishments and perspective of our faculty,” Furbish says. “We may be small but we’re also fierce.”

At the core of the department’s international reputation are quality research and teamwork. Most research projects involve collaborations with other EES faculty, Vanderbilt scholars, top researchers worldwide and students. Graduate students are drawn by the department’s small, personal size and its faculty’s reputation for significant research in which students are coauthors.

The interdisciplinary culture of collaboration ranked high in drawing Assistant Professor Larisa DeSantis to the department in 2009. DeSantis, whose area of expertise is mammalian fossils, studies how past climate change affected mammals and their environments.

“EES is an ideal place to integrate geological and biological disciplines with the flexibility to ask biological questions using the fossil record,” DeSantis says. “Students here continually challenge me to communicate the broader implications of current Earth and environmental science research, connecting my work to fields spanning the sciences to the humanities.”

Collaboration is Key

In conjunction with Professors Calvin Miller and John Ayers, Assistant Professor Guilherme Gualda is studying a volcanic eruption that buried parts of the Southwest in ash 18 million years ago. The trio is exploring volcanic forces with a particular eye for ancient eruptions, their causes and impact, and what they tell about today’s eruptions. Gualda focuses on how magma chambers form and factors leading to volcanic eruptions, Ayers studies how earth materials behave geochemically under high pressure and temperatures, and Miller concentrates on ancient magma systems.

“Collaboration is an explicit goal of the department—no isolation. Multiple people thinking about a problem in different ways benefits everyone,” Gualda says. “Having two to three people interacting brings different perspectives.” His research draws in graduate and undergraduate students, and he reaches out to faculty whose interest in the formation of the Earth’s crust mesh with his. The EES professors says this approach gives students opportunities to learn and work in different areas, which can broaden their post-graduation employment options.

“People who collaborate spread their enthusiasm,” Calvin Miller says. “People who have diverse experiences have more job opportunities.”

Above, clockwise from top left: Heading toward Mount St. Helens’ active lava dome; in the field in Nevada; home base in Antarctica; rocks formed within a magma chamber that erupted 16 million years ago.

Miller is an expert on Earth materials, particularly those rocks derived from magma that has cooled and solidified below the Earth’s surface. Fieldwork by Miller and his students at Mount St. Helens has uncovered rich data about the evolution of the recently active volcano. Miller also works with Furbish, an expert in fluid dynamics and geomorphology, on a study of how magmas and particles interact within magma chambers.

Furbish’s fluid studies also tie in with Molly Miller’s landmark work two continents away. New faculty member Dan Morgan, senior lecturer in EES, also interacts with Miller as he studies configuration and evolution of rocks and landforms in Antarctic dry valleys. Miller’s ongoing research in Antarctica is revealing how sediment is delivered to coastal areas and how sea creatures beneath the ice modify the sediment. Concurrently, she tracks environmental changes on the continent in the face of global warming.

Environmental Change and Sustainability

Currently, the department is seeing increased interest in the environment and sustainability. “As Earth scientists, we work both in the present and the past, which gives us a unique perspective,” Furbish says. “Climate change is front and center in students’ worldview. EES continues to broaden its scope in this direction.”

In the spring semester 2010, students came face-to-face with the impact of Earth issues on climate change and sustainability through a multidisciplinary EES seminar called Water and Social Justice in Bangladesh.

During the course, faculty and students from the College of Arts and Science, School of Engineering and Peabody College traveled to Bangladesh with Goodbred and Gilligan. The team toured the country, met with Bangladeshi representatives and discussed solutions to the South Asian country’s dire freshwater needs.

“As Earth scientists, we work both in the present and the past.”

–David Furbish

The trip tied both to Goodbred’s climate change-related research on the formation of deltas by major rivers draining from the nearby Himalayas and to Gilligan’s work as associate director of the Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network. Working in a multidisciplinary environment, network members produce theoretical and applied research on the impact of individual and household behavior on greenhouse gases. Gilligan’s emphasis is the intersection of transdisciplinary environmental problems—issues that combine scientific, technical, social, political and ethical concerns—and helping students prepare to solve them.

That’s ultimately the work of EES, Furbish says. “So many of the challenges the world faces fundamentally involve breaking down barriers, bringing the expertise and perspectives of many people and fields to finding solutions,” he says. “Ours is the quintessential interdisciplinary science, providing vital perspectives on how Earth’s physical and geochemical templates simultaneously sustain and threaten life and influence human interactions with Earth.”

photo credit: Field photos courtesy of EES department

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