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Alumni Newsletter: 2011-2012


A Revew of the Department- time to reflect

Many of us in the Department spent  significant time over last six months getting ready for a review of the Department. The University doesn't have fixed schedule for reviewing departments, but reviews tend to happen about every 10 years.   The highlight of the review process came with the visit of a very strong external review team led by Ed Stolper, the Provost of CalTech, Susan Brantley (Penn State), David Bercovici (Yale) and Phil Christensen (ASU).

Going through the review made us think a lot- what aspects of Geological Sciences have changed since the last review, what characteristics of the Department do we want to make sure we retain in the coming years, what kinds of opportunities for change should we embrace?  Everyone will have somewhat different answers to these questions. But we found a strong consensus around the following ideas:

  • Geological Sciences embraces the University-College concept.  This means that the Department puts a lot of energy into assuring excellent teaching and advising at the undergraduate level.  We are convinced that the close-knit experience we help create for our concentrators makes the Department a more exciting intellectual environment for all.
  • We value the integrated environment created over the years.  As examples, the very strong undergraduate program brings synergies to our graduate program: a large number of undergraduate research projects become folded into Ph.D. research programs.  Our graduate students benefit from working with great students in the field or the lab, and undergraduates get close mentoring and a better appreciation for the world of research. 
  • We profit from a collegial environment.  Over the years, the Department has worked hard to build centers of strength with very strong research collaborations.  We don’t try to cover every area of the Earth and Planetary Sciences, but we do pick important aspects and emphasize synergies between faculty research programs.  As a result, the fluid use of equipment and facilities in the department allows students to get the benefit of much larger research capabilities than they could working solely with one faculty advisor, and we are able to offer interdisciplinary graduate seminars on cutting edge topics involving multiple faculty.

The external review that came back was very supportive of the department.  It helped underline important ways we’d like to grow and expand our reach.  Excellence starts with faculty and students, but it’s sustained by a number of vital pieces that we would like to strengthen.  The Department began a prize post-doctoral program this year, one that we plan to sustain and enlarge over time.  Bringing some of the brightest recent Ph.D.s to our department for 2-year stints provides a constant input of new ideas and allows the faculty to preview areas of research that we may want to invest in the future.  We hope to start a sustained push to permanent support for a departmental post-doc program.  We also recognize that cutting-edge research in the Earth and Planetary sciences increasingly demands skilled laboratory technicians and scientific programmers to keep things running at a high level, and that the University needs to continually upgrade the facilities that support our research and teaching.  I’m now working to identify ways to fund these positions into the future.

We also see interesting opportunities emerging in interdisciplinary work on campus.  The Department has made major investments of people and facilities in the broad area of environmental sciences.  Thanks to hires both within the Department and through the Environmental Change Initiative, we are now the place to go to learn about environmental chemistry, atmospheric chemistry, atmospheric dynamics, oceanography, and changes in the land surface brought about by humans.  This expertise will be featured in a new “Introduction to Global Climate Change” course that will be offered for non-scientists, beginning thiscoming fall.  Our partnership with the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole (with a joint Brown-MBL Ph.D. program) also brings new avenues for linking ecology, biogeochemistry and environmental change with our traditional strength in Earth and Planetary system history.  Another expanding area of interest lies in linking the increasingly complex computational challenges in the Earth and Planetary sciences to the very strong group in Brown’s Applied Math department.  A number of research collaborations in geodynamics and climate studies have already been launched, and we expect more will happen in the future.

None of us have a crystal ball for what our field will look like 10 years from now.  This is why we can learn much from the career experiences of alumni to help us to better anticipate emerging trends in the Earth and Planetary sciences, and to do the best job we can to train the next generation of Earth and Planetary scientists at Brown.  Your thoughts and reflections will most definitely be appreciated!


Timothy D. Herbert

Professor and Chair