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-Temzelides, Caroline 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 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.”
“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”.
– JANUARY 31, 2020
Fed grant backs Rice earthquake research
HOUSTON – (Jan. 31, 2020) – Rice University geologist Melodie French is crushing it in her quest to understand the physics responsible for earthquakes.
The assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary science has earned a prestigious CAREER Award, a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $600,000 to support her investigation of the tectonic roots of earthquakes and tsunamis.
CAREER awards support the research and educational development of young scholars likely to become leaders in their fields. The grants, among the most competitive awarded by the NSF, go to fewer than 400 scholars each year across all disciplines.
For French, the award gives her Rice lab the opportunity to study rocks exhumed from subduction zones at plate boundaries that are often the source of megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis. Her lab squeezes rock samples to characterize the strength of the rocks deep underground where the plates meet.
“Fundamentally, we hope to learn how the material properties of the rocks themselves control where earthquakes happen, how big one might become, what causes an earthquake to sometimes arrest after only a small amount of slip or what allows some to grow quite large,” French said.
“A lot of geophysics involves putting out instruments to see signals that propagate to the Earth’s surface,” she said. “But we try to understand the properties of the rocks that allow these different phenomena to happen.”
That generally involves putting rocks under extreme stress. “We squish rocks at different temperatures and pressures and at different rates while measuring force and strain in as many dimensions as we can,” French said. “That gives us a full picture of how the rocks deform under different conditions.”
The lab conducts experiments on both exposed surface rocks that were once deep within subduction zones and rock acquired by drilling for core samples.
“I’m working with (Rice Professor) Juli Morgan on a subduction zone off of New Zealand where they drilled through part of the fault zone and brought rock up from about 500 meters deep,” French said. “But many big earthquakes happen much deeper than we could ever drill. So we need to go into the field to find ancient subduction rocks that have somehow managed to come to the surface.”
French is not sure if it will ever be possible to accurately predict earthquakes. “But one thing we can do is create better hazard maps to help us understand what regions should be prepared for quakes,” she said.
French is a native of Maine who earned her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College, a master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D. at Texas A&M University.
The award, co-funded by the NSF’s Geophysics, Tectonics and Marine Geology and Geophysics programs, will also provide inquiry-based educational opportunities in scientific instrument design and use to K-12 students as well as undergraduate and graduate-level students.
Read the award abstract at https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1945264&HistoricalAwards=false.
Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews.
Rheology and Deformation (French Lab): https://mefrench.com and the latest issue of Outcroppings- https://earthscience.rice.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/French-lab-spread.pdf
An interview with Melodie French: http://earthscience.rice.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2016-Outcroppings-MelodieFrench.pdf
Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences: https://earthscience.rice.edu
Wiess School of Natural Sciences: https://naturalsciences.rice.edu
Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 4 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
Gabor Tari is the recipient of the Vlastimila “Vlasta” Dvořáková International Ambassador Service Award. This award is given to those who have promoted growth and awareness of the AAPG organization internationally, outside the United States, and created opportunities for the Association to reach a wider audience of geoscientists worldwide. Tari is being honored for exception role in being the main driver of catalysts for many international events in the Europe Region.
AAPG awards, approved by the Executive Committee, are presented annually to recognize individuals for service to the profession, the science, the Association and the public.
Biographies and citations of all award winners will be included in a future AAPG BULLETIN. (Image courtesy of AAPG)
Gabor Tari received his Ph.D. from Rice in 1994. He lives in Austria and is the Group Chief Scientist for Geology at OMV Exploration and Production Company.
Martha Lou Broussard is this year’s recipient of the AAPG Halbouty Outstanding Leadership Award, a very high honor. Martha Lou has played a key role in the success of AAPG and our own EEPS. She was the first woman to graduate from our department. She played key roles in AAPG and established the AAPG student expo, which is now the primary way the energy industry recruits students. Today, she continues to help our department stay in touch with alumni and help our students in professional development and networking. Under the Broussard fellowship, she continues to support and foster the careers of women in earth sciences.
AAPG Honorary Member Martha Lou Broussard is this year’s Michel T. Halbouty Outstanding Leadership Award recipient.
Broussard holds the distinction of being the first female geology graduate of Rice University, and she was a technical assistant to M. King Hubbert prior to going on to a successful career in the oil industry with Shell Development Company and ERICO. She returned to Rice to work as the Department of Earth Science coordinator, and now volunteers as the department’s alumni coordinator.
She is a recipient of AAPG’s Distinguished Service Award and is a past vice president and chair of the AAPG House of Delegates, but is perhaps best known for helping to start the AAPG/Society of Exploration Geoscientists Student Expo program, which today forms a key role in the recruiting program of as many as 40 exploration and production companies.
– DECEMBER 2, 2019
Study points to one cause for several mysteries linked to breathable oxygen
Earth’s breathable atmosphere is key for life, and a new study suggests that the first burst of oxygen was added by a spate of volcanic eruptions brought about by tectonics.
The study by geoscientists at Rice University offers a new theory to help explain the appearance of significant concentrations of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere about 2.5 billion years ago, something scientists call the Great Oxidation Event (GOE). The research appears this week in Nature Geoscience.
“What makes this unique is that it’s not just trying to explain the rise of oxygen,” said study lead author James Eguchi, a NASA postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Riverside who conducted the work for his Ph.D. dissertation at Rice. “It’s also trying to explain some closely associated surface geochemistry, a change in the composition of carbon isotopes, that is observed in the carbonate rock record a relatively short time after the oxidation event. We’re trying explain each of those with a single mechanism that involves the deep Earth interior, tectonics and enhanced degassing of carbon dioxide from volcanoes.”
Eguchi’s co-authors are Rajdeep Dasgupta, an experimental and theoretical geochemist and professor in Rice’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, and Johnny Seales, a Rice graduate student who helped with the model calculations that validated the new theory.
Scientists have long pointed to photosynthesis — a process that produces waste oxygen — as a likely source for increased oxygen during the GOE. Dasgupta said the new theory doesn’t discount the role that the first photosynthetic organisms, cyanobacteria, played in the GOE.
“Most people think the rise of oxygen was linked to cyanobacteria, and they are not wrong,” he said. “The emergence of photosynthetic organisms could release oxygen. But the most important question is whether the timing of that emergence lines up with the timing of the Great Oxidation Event. As it turns out, they do not.”
Cyanobacteria were alive on Earth as much as 500 million years before the GOE. While a number of theories have been offered to explain why it might have taken that long for oxygen to show up in the atmosphere, Dasgupta said he’s not aware of any that have simultaneously tried to explain a marked change in the ratio of carbon isotopes in carbonate minerals that began about 100 million years after the GOE. Geologists refer to this as the Lomagundi Event, and it lasted several hundred million years.
One in a hundred carbon atoms are the isotope carbon-13, and the other 99 are carbon-12. This 1-to-99 ratio is well documented in carbonates that formed before and after Lomagundi, but those formed during the event have about 10% more carbon-13.
Eguchi said the explosion in cyanobacteria associated with the GOE has long been viewed as playing a role in Lomagundi.
“Cyanobacteria prefer to take carbon-12 relative to carbon-13,” he said. “So when you start producing more organic carbon, or cyanobacteria, then the reservoir from which the carbonates are being produced is depleted in carbon-12.”
Eguchi said people tried using this to explain Lomagundi, but timing was again a problem.
“When you actually look at the geologic record, the increase in the carbon-13-to-carbon-12 ratio actually occurs up to 10s of millions of years after oxygen rose,” he said. “So then it becomes difficult to explain these two events through a change in the ratio of organic carbon to carbonate.”
The scenario Eguchi, Dasgupta and Seales arrived at to explain all of these factors is:
- A dramatic increase in tectonic activity led to the formation of hundreds of volcanoes that spewed carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
- The climate warmed, increasing rainfall, which in turn increased “weathering,” the chemical breakdown of rocky minerals on Earth’s barren continents.
- Weathering produced a mineral-rich runoff that poured into the oceans, supporting a boom in both cyanobacteria and carbonates.
- The organic and inorganic carbon from these wound up on the seafloor and was eventually recycled back into Earth’s mantle at subduction zones, where oceanic plates are dragged beneath continents.
- When sediments remelted into the mantle, inorganic carbon, hosted in carbonates, tended to be released early, re-entering the atmosphere through arc volcanoes directly above subduction zones.
- Organic carbon, which contained very little carbon-13, was drawn deep into the mantle and emerged hundreds of millions of years later as carbon dioxide from island hotspot volcanoes like Hawaii.
“It’s kind of a big cyclic process,” Eguchi said. “We do think the amount of cyanobacteria increased around 2.4 billion years ago. So that would drive our oxygen increase. But the increase of cyanobacteria is balanced by the increase of carbonates. So that carbon-12-to-carbon-13 ratio doesn’t change until both the carbonates and organic carbon, from cyanobacteria, get subducted deep into the Earth. When they do, geochemistry comes into play, causing these two forms of carbon to reside in the mantle for different periods of time. Carbonates are much more easily released in magmas and are released back to the surface at a very short period. Lomagundi starts when the first carbon-13-enriched carbon from carbonates returns to the surface, and it ends when the carbon-12-enriched organic carbon returns much later, rebalancing the ratio.”
Eguchi said the study emphasizes the importance of the role that deep Earth processes can play in the evolution of life at the surface.
“We’re proposing that carbon dioxide emissions were very important to this proliferation of life,” he said. “It’s really trying to tie in how these deeper processes have affected surface life on our planet in the past.”
Dasgupta is also the principal investigator on a NASA-funded effort called CLEVER Planets that is exploring how life-essential elements might come together on distant exoplanets. He said better understanding how Earth became habitable is important for studying habitability and its evolution on distant worlds.
“It looks like Earth’s history is calling for tectonics to play a big role in habitability, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that tectonics is absolutely necessary for oxygen build up,” he said. “There might be other ways of building and sustaining oxygen, and exploring those is one of the things we’re trying to do in CLEVER Planets.”
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Deep Carbon Observatory.
– NOVEMBER 28, 2019
Cutting-edge tech comes to new Rice lab on heels of Science study
Undersea telecommunications cables that connect the continents may help measure earthquakes and detect other seismic events, according to a newly published paper based on research conducted by a Rice University professor and his colleagues.
But proof that the technique works might not have happened without some arduous ditch-digging.
Scientists led by University of California, Berkeley, graduate student Nate Lindsey and Rice geophysicist Jonathan Ajo-Franklin confirmed that telecommunication cables may be useful to collect seismic readings from the seafloor and at great distances.
Their high-profile paper in this week’s Science serves as a nice homecoming for Ajo-Franklin, a 1998 Rice alumnus (Brown College) who rejoined the university this summer as a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. (A separate article in the issue further describes the research.)
Ajo-Franklin comes to Rice from his position as a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), where he and Lindsey, a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow, led an experiment that turned 20 kilometers of fiber-optic cable into the equivalent of 10,000 seismic stations along the ocean floor. The fiber was made available by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and co-author Craig Dawe.
During a four-day experiment in Monterey Bay, they recorded a 3.5 magnitude quake and seismic scattering from underwater fault zones using a technique called distributed acoustic sensing (DAS).
DAS employs a photonic device that sends short pulses of laser light down the cable and detects backscattering created by strain in the cable caused by stretching. With interferometry, used to decode interference between the returning signals, they measured the strain signals every 2 meters (6 feet), effectively turning a 20-kilometer cable into 10,000 individual motion sensors.
Researchers had previously confirmed DAS with land-based “dark” fibers, optical fibers buried underground but unused or leased for short-term use, unlike “lit” internet fibers. The latest advance could significantly advance scientists’ reach.
The technique was inspired by a study that led Ajo-Franklin and Lindsey to Fairbanks, Alaska, five years ago. “It involved laying fibers and using ambient noise to detect zones of permafrost thaw in the Arctic,” Ajo-Franklin said. “It was a backbreaking effort to get the fibers in the ground.
“I remember we had a long conversation; like, ‘We know there are fibers in the ground already for telecom,’” he said. “We thought, ‘What if we use those instead of digging these kilometer-long trenches?’ That was the genesis of the idea.”
Ajo-Franklin said the new study is “on the frontier of seismology, the first time anyone has used offshore fiber-optic cables for looking at these types of oceanographic signals or for imaging fault structures. One of the blank spots in the seismographic network worldwide is in the oceans.”
The ultimate goal, he said, is to use the dense fiber-optic networks around the world — probably more than 10 million kilometers in all, on both land and under the sea — as sensitive measures of Earth’s movement, allowing earthquake monitoring in regions that don’t have expensive ground stations like those that dot much of earthquake-prone California and the Pacific Coast.
“The existing seismic network tends to have high-precision instruments, but is relatively sparse, whereas this gives you access to a much denser array,” Ajo-Franklin said. “These systems are sensitive to changes of nanometers to hundreds of picometers for every meter of length. That is a one-part-in-a-billion change.”
“The beauty of fiber-optic seismology is that you can use existing telecommunications cables without having to put out 10,000 seismometers,” Lindsey said. “You just walk out to the site and connect the instrument to the end of the fiber.”
During the underwater test, according to a University of California, Berkeley, press release, the technique allowed the researchers to measure a broad range of frequencies of seismic waves from a magnitude 3.4 earthquake that occurred 45 kilometers inland near Gilroy, California, and map multiple known and previously unmapped submarine fault zones, part of the San Gregorio Fault system. They also were able to detect steady-state ocean waves — so-called ocean microseisms — as well as storm waves, all of which matched buoy and land seismic measurements.
Ajo-Franklin plans to next test fiber-optic monitoring of seismic events in a geothermal area south of Southern California’s Salton Sea. This work, partnering with LBNL where Ajo-Franklin remains a faculty scientist, will also evaluate temperature profiling using the same network.
“We’re going to do seismic imaging over an active geothermal zone there to see if we can identify the faults that provide fluids to deep reservoirs,” he said. “It’s a dark fiber project where we’re planning to utilize fiber owned by a telecom company.”
Some of that work will come to his new lab, Ajo-Franklin said. “We just purchased a DAS box for Rice and will have a facility to test cables and try different installations and special environments,” he said. “And we’ll use this technology in field deployments around the world in places that are seismically interesting or have structural imaging targets.”
Though southeast Texas lacks the seismic activity that characterizes regions around fault zones, Ajo-Franklin plans to take full advantage of benefits he sees in the local environment.
“If you’re interested in ambient noise imaging, this is actually a good place to be,” he said. “We work a lot on what’s called ambient noise seismology, using all the random noises propagating through the Earth. If you do a bit of signal processing, you get something that looks like an active-source seismic section.”
He said DAS could be used to measure the effects of hydraulic fracturing for oil production, as well as wave action in the Gulf of Mexico and local hydrogeologic processes.
The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
– NOVEMBER 26, 2019
Richard Gordon is honored by scientific society
AAAS fellows are elected by their peers, and Gordon and Miranda are among 443 new fellows announced this week by the 120,000-member association. Fellows are selected for scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.
Gordon, the W.M. Keck Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, was selected “for distinguished contributions to the fields of tectonic geophysics and geodesy through forefront research on diffuse oceanic plate boundaries and true polar wander.”
Gordon joined Rice in 1995 and studies the movement and deformation of tectonic plates, the patterns those movements leave in the paleogeographic record and the geophysical consequences of tectonic motions and deformation, including earthquakes, the building of mountain ranges and the evolution of ocean basins. He has discovered and investigated a number of diffuse boundaries that separate distinct tectonic plates in the oceans, and his investigations of “true” polar wander, instances when Earth shifted relative to its spin axis, have helped explain puzzling features of the paleomagnetic record. Gordon’s many honors include the American Geophysical Union’s Macelwane Medal in 1989 and the Geological Society of America’s Day Medal in 2002.
The 2019 AAAS Fellows will be acknowledged in the Nov. 29 issue of Science and honored at a Feb. 15 ceremony at the 2020 AAAS annual meeting in Seattle.