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January 31, 2005

Geosciences Center Recruiting Faculty, Grad Students

A new Center for Integrative Geosciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) is recruiting graduate students and additional faculty for fall 2005.

The Center, located in Beach Hall and headed by Pieter Visscher, associate professor of marine sciences, will support research and instruction in the geosciences. It will administer the current geology and geophysics graduate and undergraduate programs, increase the interdisciplinary emphasis for students entering in fall 2005, and promote interaction among scientists within CLAS and around the University who study the processes that shape the Earth.

Existing expertise at the University in the rapidly growing field of geobiology will provide a framework for the development of the Center’s initial programs.

“The new center will capitalize on emerging trends in scientific research that recognize the importance of integrating information across fields,” says Ross D. MacKinnon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It will provide students with the skills necessary to solve scientific problems in the 21st century.”

The new center will draw on the expertise of faculty whose appointments are in various departments, such as ecology and evolutionary biology, marine sciences, molecular and cell biology, chemistry, geography, and physics, including faculty from the former Department of Geology and Geophysics. The plan is to draw also on strengths of faculty from outside CLAS, from environmental engineering and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, for example.

Three new faculty members will be hired to provide expertise in paleobiology, stable isotope geochemistry, and stratigraphy – the study of layered sedimentary rocks of the Earth’s crust. The positions bridge gaps between disciplines and support the Center’s goal of providing a range of diverse but complementary scientific expertise for exploring the geosciences.

The Graduate School has approved the graduate program proposed by the Center, and advertisements recruiting students will appear this week in Eos, the weekly international newspaper of geophysics. Renovations are planned to reconfigure office and laboratory space in Beach Hall to house the Center.

Until a new undergraduate course of studies in geosciences is approved, students interested in the field may pursue studies through the individualized major program. Undergraduates who declared as geology and geophysics majors before January 2004 still will be able to complete the coursework required for the former degree.

Graduate students from the former program are finishing their degree work, even as new students have begun applying to the Center. Visscher expects to attract six to eight graduate students to the new program for fall 2005, and eventually to have 25 to 30 graduate degree students.

Zoe Cardon, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, will direct the Center’s graduate program.

Graduate degrees in the new program will retain the geological sciences name for the time being. Visscher says he hopes eventually to name the degree “integrative geosciences,” to reflect the broad new approach.

He adds that he wants to build “a cohort of students with diverse interests who are able to talk to each other.” Seminars and innovative teaching methods will build interaction among faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students from various disciplines. They will learn the fundamentals and key questions that scientists are asking in fields outside of their own, he says, an approach that he likens to making porous the walls that separate disciplines.

The Center is applying for a National Sciences Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) grant for research into watersheds, groundwater, and coastal land use that would lend support to this approach. The IGERT program was developed by the NSF to encourage multidisciplinary, problem-center training for scientists.

Other funding agencies are supporting similar programs, Visscher says. Part of the Center’s role will be to bring people together who can integrate research strengths within the University and attract external funding.

MacKinnon says the Center also will provide students, both undergraduate and graduate, with the most contemporary preparation in the geosciences, maximizing the contributions of disciplines across the University. “I see this as an excellent opportunity to make the University more competitive in its research and teaching programs,” he says.

The Center for Integrative Geosciences is the result of work over several months by a committee chaired by Ronald Growney, associate dean, and including nine faculty members from four departments, as well as students from the former geology and geophysics department. The Center is now forming faculty advisory and external advisory committees.