Rice mourns geophysicist, former college magister Dale Sawyer

Rice geophysicist Dale Sawyer, a respected scientist, dedicated educator and former magister of Will Rice and Sid Richardson colleges, died peacefully Sept. 15 after a long illness. He was 65.

Sawyer, professor emeritus of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, joined Rice in 1988 and retired this year. He was well-known and esteemed around the world for his scientific leadership in marine geophysics, particularly his work on the origins of continental margins, and colleagues recalled he was beloved at Rice for his spirit, good humor and dedication to students and scholarship.

He and his wife, Elise, served as magisters of Will Rice from 1997-2002 and Sid Rich from 2009-2014.

“Dale was one of the kindest, most generous and caring people in the world, welcoming everyone with an enormous smile — and a bear hug if you were lucky,” said longtime research collaborator Julia Morgan, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. “And so eager to hear about your life, before he shared his own. He will be sorely missed by all.”

Sawyer was born in St. Louis, Missouri, traveled the world as a child and graduated from the International School of Bangkok before earning his bachelor’s degree in Earth science from Purdue University in 1976 and his doctorate in marine geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982.

He was a pioneer in the numerical modeling of crustal deformation and an expert in the acquisition and interpretation of active source seismic profiles. He frequently went to sea to collect seismic data aboard research ships, and because of his calm leadership skills and expertise he was tapped to serve as either chief scientist or co-chief scientist on half of the shipboard expeditions in which he participated.

“He ran research cruises from Chile to Iberia and elsewhere,” Morgan said. “His research changed our understanding of how continents evolve and also launched numerous students and colleagues on productive career paths.”

During their time as college magisters, he and Elise helped support more than 1,000 Rice undergraduates, and Morgan said Dale “was like a proud parent to every student in the college, excited about their interests and activities, saddened by their trials, and always there for them.”

After a fireworks celebration for the matriculation of Rice’s 100th class of freshmen in 2011, Sawyer, then magister at Sid Rich, told the Rice News, “It’s wonderful. At this point, all we see is their faces, and we have no idea what they’re going to be a year from now or four years from now. It’s just amazing to watch them grow and do things that they’re going to be proud of for the rest of their lives.”

Sawyer’s family said some of his favorite times at Rice were spent cheering the Sid Rich women to a powder puff football championship and the Will Rice Beer Bike team to a sweep, as well as helping to grow student-run theater. He also advised and mentored countless graduate students and postdocs and helped found the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences’ professional master’s program.

Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman said, “Dale was a wonderful mentor to Rice students outside of the classroom. He had a big smile and wonderful laugh, and he cared deeply about students, their experiences at Rice and their development as scholars and citizens of the world. His passing is a true loss to our community.”

Sawyer’s teaching didn’t stop at Rice’s hedges. He spoke to grade school classes, worked with his students to create an introductory Earth sciences curriculum for middle and high school students that is still in use, and was frequently interviewed by news reporters seeking comment about the geological causes of earthquakes, tsunamis and other seismic events. In partnership with current and former students, Sawyer also co-taught continuing education courses for Houston-area high school science teachers that used ground-penetrating radar to locate graves in former slave cemeteries.

An Eagle Scout, Sawyer was also passionate about mentoring young people through the Boy Scouts of America. He was a Vigil Honor member of the Order of the Arrow, and though he served in many roles at the Sam Houston Area Council, he was most proud of helping to lead National Youth Leadership Training, a program that allowed him to mentor and coach hundreds of young men.

Sawyer’s travels took him to every continent, but Morgan said his heart was always at Rice.

“Rice University was always foremost in his mind: It was his life,” Morgan said. “There are few people I know who had so much loyalty and commitment to the university, to the department and most of all to the undergraduates who crossed his path.”

Sawyer was named outstanding faculty associate at Will Rice College from 1990-1997, was a distinguished alumnus of the Purdue Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and was a member of the American Geophysical Union, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Sigma Xi.

Sawyer was preceded in death by his daughter Kate and his father William. He is survived by Elise, his wife of 43 years; daughter Laura ’05, Sid Rich, and her wife Charnel de Villiers; son Matt ’12, Sid Rich, and his wife Kimberly Sawyer; mother Jane Ann Sawyer; sister Carole Bolin and numerous nieces and nephews.

 

In lieu of customary remembrances, the family requests that memorial gifts be made to the Sawyer New Student Award at Will Rice College or to the Houston Aphasia Recovery Center (HARC): Dale Sawyer Memorial Fund. Gifts to Rice may be made online at giving.rice.edu​ or mailed to Rice University, Office of Development MS-81, 6100 Main Street, Houston, TX, 77025. Gifts to HARC may be made online at ​www.harctx.org ​or mailed to 5005 Woodway Drive, Suite 110, Houston, TX, 77056.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University’s Office of Public Affairs.

The Passing of Dale Sawyer

Kirsten Siebach in science TV series ‘Life 2.0’

 

Kirsten Siebach and Scott Solomon in the debut episode of "Life 2.0"

Kirsten Siebach (left), assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, and Scott Solomon, associate teaching professor in biosciences, appear in the first episode of “Life 2.0,” a new television series that’s available for streaming and slated to debut on the air locally at 10 a.m. Saturday on Houston’s KRIV-TV (Fox 26). Siebach and Solomon were filmed at Rice in early 2019 for the episode, which explores the possibility of people colonizing Mars and the ways Mars might change humans who live there.

Small quake clusters can’t hide from AI

MIKE WILLIAMS – AUGUST 24, 2020

Rice researchers use deep learning to find signs were present before deadly Greenland landslide

Researchers at Rice University’s Brown School of Engineering are using data gathered before a deadly 2017 landslide in Greenland to show how deep learning may someday help predict seismic events like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Seismic data collected before the massive landslide at a Greenland fjord shows the subtle signals of the impending event were there, but no human analyst could possibly have put the clues together in time to make a prediction. The resulting tsunami that devastated the village of Nuugaatsiaq killed four people and injured nine and washed 11 buildings into the sea.

An overview by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the location of the Nuugaatsiaq landslide (yellow star) relative to five broadband seismic stations (pink triangles) within 500 km of the landslide. Nuugaatsiaq (NUUG) was impacted by the resulting tsunami the reached a height of 300 feet at sea, though it was much lower before it reached the village. The inset shows the geometry of the fjords relative to the landslide and Nuugaatsiaq. (Source: USGS)

A study lead by former Rice visiting scholar Léonard Seydoux, now an assistant professor at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, employs techniques developed by Rice engineers and co-authors Maarten de Hoop and Richard Baraniuk. Their open-access report in Nature Communications shows how deep learning methods can process the overwhelming amount of data provided by seismic tools fast enough to predict events.

De Hoop, who specializes in mathematical analysis of inverse problems and deep learning in connection with Rice’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, said advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are well-suited to independently monitor large and growing amounts of seismic data. AI has the ability to identify clusters of events and detect background noise to make connections that human experts might not recognize due to biases in their models, not to mention sheer volume, he said.

Hours before the Nuugaatsiaq event, those small signals began to appear in data collected by a nearby seismic station. The researchers analyzed data from midnight on June 17, 2017, until one minute before the slide at 11:39 p.m. that released up to 51 million cubic meters of material.

The Rice algorithm revealed weak but repetitive rumblings — undetectable in raw seismic records — that began about nine hours before the event and accelerated over time, leading to the landslide.

“There was a precursor paper to this one by our co-author, Piero Poli at Grenoble, that studied the event without AI,” de Hoop said. “They discovered something in the data they thought we should look at, and because the area is isolated from a lot of other noise and tectonic activity, it was the purest data we could work with to try our ideas.”

De Hoop is continuing to test the algorithm to analyze volcanic activity in Costa Rica and is also involved with NASA’s InSight lander, which delivered a seismic detector to the surface of Mars nearly two years ago.

Constant monitoring that delivers such warnings in real time will save lives, de Hoop said.

Richard Baraniuk Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

 

Maarten de Hoop       Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

“People ask me if this study is significant — and yes, it is a major step forward — and then if we can predict earthquakes. We’re not quite ready to do that, but this direction is, I think, one of the most promising at the moment.”

When de Hoop joined Rice five years ago, he brought expertise in solving inverse problems that involve working backwards from data to find a cause. Baraniuk is a leading expert in machine learning and compressive sensing, which help extract useful data from sparse samples. Together, they’re a formidable team.

“The most exciting thing about this work is not the current result, but the fact that the approach represents a new research direction for machine learning as applied to geophysics,” Baraniuk said.

“I come from the mathematics of deep learning and Rich comes from signal processing, which are at opposite ends of the discipline,” de Hoop said. “But here we meet in the middle. And now we have a tremendous opportunity for Rice to build upon its expertise as a hub for seismologists to gather and put these pieces together. There’s just so much data now that it’s becoming impossible to handle any other way.”

De Hoop is helping to grow Rice’s reputation for seismic expertise with the Simons Foundation Math+X Symposia, which have already featured events on space exploration and mitigating natural hazards like volcanoes and earthquakes. A third event, dates to be announced, will study deep learning applications for solar giants and exoplanets.

A graph extracted by a novel Rice University algorithm shows waveforms from the cluster associated with precursors and aligned with respect to a reference waveform within the cluster. The data was from three seismograms collected over the course of the day before the Nuugaatsiaq landslide. (Source: Nature Communications)

Co-authors of the paper are Rice graduate student Randall Balestriero and Michel Campillo, a professor at Grenoble. Poli is a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, Grenoble. De Hoop is the Simons Chair in Computational and Applied Mathematics and Earth Science and holds appointments in computational and applied mathematics, mathematics and Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice. Baraniuk is the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at Rice and founder and director of OpenStax.

The research was supported by the European Research Council, the Multidisciplinary Institute in Artificial Intelligence at Grenoble-Alpes, the Simons Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Office of Naval Research and a Department of Defense Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship.

Rice researchers use InSight for deep Mars measurements

– AUGUST 5, 2020

Analysis of NASA lander seismograph data reveals boundaries from crust to core

Using data from NASA’s InSight Lander on Mars, Rice University seismologists have made the first direct measurements of three subsurface boundaries from the crust to the core of the red planet.

An artist's impression of Mars' inner structure.

An artist’s impression of Mars’ inner structure. The topmost layer is the crust, and beneath it is the mantle, which rests on a solid inner core. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“Ultimately it may help us understand planetary formation,” said Alan Levander, co-author of a study available online this week in Geophysical Research Letters. While the thickness of Mars’ crust and the depth of its core have been calculated with a number of models, Levander said the InSight data allowed for the first direct measurements, which can be used to check models and ultimately to improve them.

EEPS graduate student Sizhuang Deng

EEPS graduate student Sizhuang Deng

“In the absence of plate tectonics on Mars, its early history is mostly preserved compared with Earth,” said study co-author Sizhuang Deng, a Rice graduate student. “The depth estimates of Martian seismic boundaries can provide indications to better understand its past as well as the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets in general.”

Finding clues about Mars’ interior and the processes that formed it are key goals for InSight, a robotic lander that touched down in November 2018. The probe’s dome-shaped seismometer allows scientists to listen to faint rumblings inside the planet, in much the way that a doctor might listen to a patient’s heartbeat with a stethoscope.

Alan Levander

Alan Levander

 

Seismometers measure vibrations from seismic waves. Like circular ripples that mark the spot where a pebble disturbed the surface of a pond, seismic waves flow through planets, marking the location and size of disturbances like meteor strikes or earthquakes, which are aptly called marsquakes on the red planet. InSight’s seismometer recorded more than 170 of these from February to September 2019.

Seismic waves are also subtly altered as they pass through different kinds of rock. Seismologists have studied the patterns in seismographic recordings on Earth for more than a century and can use them to map the location of oil and gas deposits and much deeper strata.

“The traditional way to investigate structures beneath Earth is to analyze earthquake signals using dense networks of seismic stations,” said Deng. “Mars is much less tectonically active, which means it will have far fewer marsquake events compared with Earth. Moreover, with only one seismic station on Mars, we cannot employ methods that rely on seismic networks.”

NASA's InSight lander deploying a domed cover on its seismometer

This Feb. 2, 2019 photo shows the robotic arm on NASA’s InSight lander deploying a domed cover that shield’s the lander’s seismometer from wind, dust and extreme temperatures. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Levander, Rice’s Carey Croneis Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, and Deng analyzed InSight’s 2019 seismology data using a technique called ambient noise autocorrelation. “It uses continuous noise data recorded by the single seismic station on Mars to extract pronounced reflection signals from seismic boundaries,” Deng said.

The first boundary Deng and Levander measured is the divide between Mars’ crust and mantle almost 22 miles (35 kilometers) beneath the lander.

The second is a transition zone within the mantle where magnesium iron silicates undergo a geochemical change. Above the zone, the elements form a mineral called olivine, and beneath it, heat and pressure compress them into a new mineral called wadsleyite. Known as the olivine-wadsleyite transition, this zone was found 690-727 miles (1,110-1,170 kilometers) beneath InSight.

“The temperature at the olivine-wadsleyite transition is an important key to building thermal models of Mars,” Deng said. “From the depth of the transition, we can easily calculate the pressure, and with that, we can derive the temperature.”

The third boundary he and Levander measured is the border between Mars’ mantle and its iron-rich core, which they found about 945-994 miles (1,520-1,600 kilometers) beneath the lander. Better understanding this boundary “can provide information about the planet’s development from both a chemical and thermal point of view,” Deng said.

The research was supported by Rice’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences.

Future Texas hurricanes: Fast like Ike or slow like Harvey?

– JULY 6, 2020

Climate change will make fast-moving storms more likely in late 21st-century Texas

Climate change will intensify winds that steer hurricanes north over Texas in the final 25 years of this century, increasing the odds for fast-moving storms like 2008’s Ike compared with slow-movers like 2017’s Harvey, according to new research.

Hurricane Harvey as seen from the International Space Station on Aug. 28, 2017

Hurricane Harvey as seen from the International Space Station on Aug. 28, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Randy Bresnik/NASA)

The study published online July 3 in Nature Communications examined regional atmospheric wind patterns that are likely to exist over Texas from 2075-2100 as Earth’s climate changes due to increased greenhouse emissions.

The research began in Houston as Harvey deluged the city with 30-40 inches of rain over five days. Rice University researchers riding out the storm began collaborating with colleagues from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and Harvard University to explore whether climate change would increase the likelihood of slow-moving rainmakers like Harvey.

“We find that the probability of having strong northward steering winds will increase with climate change, meaning hurricanes over Texas will be more likely to move like Ike than Harvey,” said study lead author Pedram Hassanzadeh of Rice.

Pedram Hassanzadeh

Pedram Hassanzadeh

Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, matching 2005’s Katrina as the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Ike was marked by coastal flooding and high winds that caused $38 billion damage across several states. It was the second-costliest U.S. hurricane at the time and has since moved to sixth. Ike struck Galveston around 2 a.m. Sept. 13, 2008, crossed Texas in less than one day and caused record power outages from Arkansas to Ohio on Sept. 14.

Hassanzadeh, a fluid dynamicist, atmospheric modeler and assistant professor of both mechanical engineering and Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, said the findings don’t suggest that slow-moving storms like Harvey won’t happen in late 21st century. Rather, they suggest that storms during the period will be more likely to be fast-moving than slow-moving. The study found the chances that a Texas hurricane will be fast-moving as opposed to slow-moving will rise by about 50% in the last quarter of the 21st century compared with the final quarter of the 20th century.

Suzana Camargo

Suzana Camargo

“These results are very interesting, given that a previous study that considered the Atlantic basin as a whole noticed a trend for slower-moving storms in the past 30 years,” said study co-author Suzana Camargo, LDEO’s Marie Tharp Lamont Research Professor. “By contrast, our study focused on changes at the end of the 21st century and shows that we need to consider much smaller regional scales, as their trends might differ from the average across much larger regions.”

Hassanzadeh said the researchers used more than a dozen different computer models to produce several hundred simulations and found that “all of them agreed on an increase in northward steering winds over Texas.”

Steering winds are strong currents in the lower 10 kilometers of the atmosphere that move hurricanes.

Map depicting total rainfall from 2017's Hurricane Harvey

Map depicting total rainfall from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

“It doesn’t happen a lot, in studying the climate system, that you get such a robust regional signal in wind patterns,” he said.

Harvey was the first hurricane Hassanzadeh experienced. He’d moved to Houston the previous year and was stunned by the slow-motion destruction that played out as bayous, creeks and rivers in and around the city topped their banks.

“I was sitting at home watching, just looking at the rain when (study co-author) Laurence (Yeung) emailed a bunch of us, asking ‘What’s going on? Why is this thing not moving?’” Hassanzadeh recalled. “That got things going. People started replying. That’s the good thing about being surrounded by smart people. Laurence got us started, and things took off.”

Laurence Yeung

Laurence Yeung

Ebrahim Nabizadeh

Ebrahim Nabizadeh

Yeung, an atmospheric chemist, Hassanzadeh and two other Rice professors on the original email, atmospheric scientist Dan Cohan and flooding expert Phil Bedient, won one of the first grants from Rice’s Houston Engagement and Recovery Effort (HERE), a research fund Rice established in response to Harvey.

“Without that, we couldn’t have done this work,” Hassanzadeh said. The HERE grant allowed Rice co-author Ebrahim Nabizadeh, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, to work for several months, analyzing the first of hundreds of computer simulations based on large-scale climate models.

The day Harvey made landfall, Hassanzadeh also had reached out to Columbia’s Chia-Ying Lee, an expert in both tropical storms and climate downscaling, procedures that use known information at large scales to make projections at local scales. Lee and Camargo used information from the large-scale simulations to make a regional model that simulated storms’ tracks over Texas in a warming climate.

Chia-Ying Lee

Chia-Ying Lee

“One challenge of studying the impact of climate change on hurricanes at a regional level is the lack of data,” said Lee, a Lamont Assistant Research Professor at LDEO. “At Columbia University, we have developed a downscaling model that uses physics-based statistics to connect large-scale atmospheric conditions to the formation, movement and intensity of hurricanes. The model’s physical basis allowed us to account for the impact of climate change, and its statistical features allowed us to simulate a sufficient number of Texas storms.”

Hassanzadeh said, “Once we found that robust signal, where all the models agreed, we thought, ‘There should be a robust mechanism that’s causing this.’”

He reached out to tropical climate dynamicist Ding Ma of Harvard to get another perspective.

“We were able to show that changes in two important processes were joining forces and resulting in the strong signal from the models,” said Ma, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and planetary sciences.

Ding Ma

Ding Ma

One of the processes was the Atlantic subtropical high, or Bermuda high, a semipermanent area of high pressure that forms over the Atlantic Ocean during the summer, and the other was the North American monsoon, an uptick in rainfall and thunderstorms over the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico that typically occurs between July and September. Hassanzadeh said recent studies have shown that each of these are projected to change as Earth’s climate warms.

“The subtropical high is a clockwise circulation to the east that is projected to intensify and shift westward, producing more northward winds over Texas,” he said. “The North American monsoon, to the west, produces a clockwise circulation high in the troposphere. That circulation is expected to weaken, resulting in increased, high-level northward winds over Texas.”

Hassanzadeh said the increased northward winds from both east and west “gives you a strong reinforcing effect over the whole troposphere, up to about 10 kilometers, over Texas. This has important implications for the movement of future Texas hurricanes.”

Models showed that the effect extended into western Louisiana, but the picture became murkier as the researchers looked further east, he said.

Map depicting total rainfall from 2008's Hurricane Ike

Map depicting total rainfall from 2008’s Hurricane Ike. (Image by Hal Pierce/SSAI/NASA

“You don’t have the robust signal like you do over Texas,” Hassanzadeh said. “If you look at Florida, for instance, there’s a lot of variation in the models. This shows how important it is to conduct studies that focus on climate impacts in specific regions. If we had looked at all of North America, for example, and tried to average over the whole region, we would have missed this localized mechanism over Texas.”

Bedient is the Herman Brown Professor of Engineering and department chair of civil and environmental engineering and director of Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center. Cohan is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Yeung is the Maurice Ewing Career Development Assistant Professor in Earth Systems Science in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Early-Career Research Fellowship Program, Rice’s Houston Engagement and Recovery Effort Fund, Columbia’s Center for Climate and Life Fellows Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Computational resources were provided by the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment, the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Computational and Information Systems Lab and Rice’s Center for Research Computing.

Laurence Yeung

Laurence Yeung wins NSF CAREER Award to study biosphere’s history

EEPS Virtual Graduation Ceremony

Sylvia Dee, Caroline Masiello and Mark Torres receive grant to study environmental implications of COVID-19

Original article COVID-19 RESEARCH FUNDS BACK SIX NEW INITIATIVES by MIKE WILLIAMS

Grants to Rice faculty support diagnostic, environmental, social projects

The Rice University COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee announced it will fund six additional projects by faculty working to mitigate the effects of the new coronavirus.

Researchers at Rice, some with the help of off-campus colleagues, plan to develop a device that rapidly identifies high-risk COVID-19 patients; a mobile phone-based test to detect the virus; a project to show how images, narratives and histories shape pandemic response; a study of how COVID-19 response policies impact air quality; a survey of Harris County residents to identify barriers to staying at home; and a study of the environmental impact of COVID-19 in Texas.

Six new projects represent the second round to be backed by the fund; the initial four projects were announced on April 20. The application window has recently closed and additional awards will be announced in the coming weeks, according to the committee led by Marcia O’Malley, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Mechanical Engineering and a professor of electrical and computer engineering and of computer science. O’Malley is a special adviser to the provost on educational and research initiatives for collaborative health.

The EEPS-led project proposed by Sylvia Dee, Ted Loch-TemzelidesCaroline Masiello and Mark Torres will take advantage of a “crucial but short-lived research window” to evaluate the short-term impacts of rapid environmental mitigation during the coronavirus crisis and how environmental pollution and economic activity affect each other. The crisis, they suggest, provides a glimpse of how Earth’s environment and its climate system might respond to aggressive, fast-paced carbon-mitigation. It also provides an opportunity to assess which sectors of the economy — energy production, the restaurant industry or grocery supply chains — contribute maximally to environmental pollution, given explicit knowledge of closure and shelter-in-place policy timelines.

To aggressively monitor and capture environmental change from several months before the pandemic through the return to business as usual, undergraduate researchers will gather and synthesize data to build a mapping software tool for Texas. Users will be able to zoom in on their home counties and see how COVID-19 policies affected local environmental pollution conditions in real time, in both mapped and graphical visualizations.

Dee and Torres are assistant professors of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. Loch-Temzelides is the George and Cynthia Mitchell Chair in Sustainable Development and a professor of economics. Masiello is a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences.

 

 

THREE EEPS GRADUATES RECEIVE COVETED NSF EARTH SCIENCES POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWSHIPS

Three Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences 2020 Ph.D. graduates are awarded prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowships – a record for the department. Brandee Carlson, Tian Dong and Andrew Moodie, all from the same laboratory group, receive the highly competitive grant after submitting research proposals to the Division of Earth Sciences at NSF.  The scope of the evaluation considers the scientific merits of the proposal, and the potential for transformative research as well as professional development by training recipients for research and leadership positions.  The grants provide two years of salary and research support at an institution of the fellows choosing.

These postdoctoral fellowships are only offered to early-career scientists, so student supervisors are relied upon to discuss fellowship opportunities with their students during their graduate careers.  Assistant professor Jeff Nittrouer, primary advisor for Carlson, Dong, and Moodie, strongly encouraged them to apply to the NSF program and is thrilled with the results.

“I could not be more proud of them,” says Nittrouer. “Collectively, they’ve shown how a laboratory raises the bar and thrives, demonstrating that scientific success comes from collaborations with fellow students and colleagues, both here at Rice and globally.”

 

EEPS 2020 Ph.D. graduates (L to R) Tian Dong, Brandee Carlson and Andrew Moodie all receive NSF Earth Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowships

 

 

 

“In the past six years, Brandee, Andrew, Tian, and Chen Wu [PhD, 2020] have cultivated a special culture: inclusiveness and sharing of ideas and resources, typifying the mantra that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.” -Dr. Jeff Nittrouer

 

 

 

 

 

In terms of their upcoming research ventures, they’ll rely on recent experiences, in particular, working in far-flung localities and remote environments.

Brandee Carlson heads to the University of Colorado, Boulder, to collaborate with Prof. Irina Overeem in the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. Dr. Carlson is exploring delta front processes of Arctic rivers, focusing research in Greenland, where under warming climate conditions, river sediment supply is increasing due to rapidly retreating glaciers and thawing permafrost. Dr. Carlson plans to investigate how failures on multiple Arctic deltas vary by water and sediment discharge.  Her work includes several field campaigns combined with CU’s extensive remote sensing capabilities. The project dovetails with her previous work on the Yellow River delta but will ultimately expand her expertise to include sediment transport at a variety of delta fronts and climate conditions.

Tian Dong will study how physical processes shape river morphology, working with Dr. Timothy Goudge at the University of Texas at Austin. Tian will develop new metrics to distinguish between meandering and braided river patterns, from sediment deposits, drill cores, remote sensing, and the rock record. The goals are to identify the prevalence of these river types for the past eon of earth’s history and improve groundwater reservoir models.  Ultimately, the metrics may be translatable to the paleoclimate record of other terrestrial planets, including Mars.

Andrew Moodie will collaborate between Stanford University and the University of Texas, working with Drs. Jef Caers and Paola Passalacqua, respectively. Dr. Moodie’s project seeks to improve an understanding of subsurface delta sediment distribution and ground fluid movement, using machine learning algorithms.  The aim is to distinguish how multiple natural and anthropogenic factors, including as sea level change and infrastructure development, influence delta systems.

According to Andrew, “Our understanding of subsurface fluid transport in river deltas is limited.  Improving our ability to manage water resources and mitigate pollutant transport lowers risk to societal health.  And predicting ground-fluid transport relies on models to constrain subsurface composition, however due to the complexity of river-delta environments, accurate assessments are difficult. Using machine learning to better constrain environmental heterogeneity will benefit society and the cultures that live on deltas globally”.

Although the group splits at the end of the academic term, all agree that their experiences at Rice have collectively enhanced their future as scientists and mentors.

“Lessons learned abroad were brought back here” [to Rice] says Brandee. “Countless hours of discussion, sharing ideas on white boards and helping write each other’s codes all enhanced our scientific successes.”

Nittrouer concludes, “Rice’s motto is ‘Unconventional Wisdom’.  When I view the accomplishments of these students, I can’t help but applaud their unconventional generosity, humility, and determination.  These students selflessly helped one another, and thanks to the support here at Rice, there was no lack for opportunity”.