Earth experienced a profound change 2.4 billion years ago. That's when oxygen, a by-product of photosynthesis, became an important component of its atmosphere.
The earliest photosynthetic organisms were blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria. Their descendants still exist today.
Cyanobacteria emerged billions of years ago, when Earth supported only anaerobic life and before life evolved mechanisms to cope with the toxic effects of reactive forms of oxygen. Abundant iron in ancient oceans exacerbated oxygen’s reactivity, making it an even stronger poison.
So how did ancient cyanobacteria cope with the effects of the toxic by-product of their own metabolism?
Starting in May, Georgia Tech’s Nadia Szeinbaum will pursue that question with a fellowship from the NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Program. She will assemble microbial communities to test the hypothesis that cyanobacteria survived rising oxygen with help from other bacteria.
“Many modern cyanobacteria have limited ability to counter the toxic effects of the oxygen they themselves produce,” Szeinbaum says. Instead, they rely on other bacteria that produce catalase, an enzyme that detoxifies oxygen.
“Could it be that this cooperative relationship was what allowed cyanobacteria to succeed and adapt to oxygen billions of years ago?” she asks.
To address the question, Szeinbaum will create a community of model cyanobacteria and catalase-producing bacteria under conditions of ancient Earth – with just a bit of oxygen and lots of iron. In this environment, Szeinbaum says, oxygen is highly toxic to cyanobacteria, but not to catalase-producing bacteria.
In modern ecosystems, the model organisms typically live apart, but evidence suggests that their ancestors may have helped each other adapt as oxygen rose. Szeinbaum hopes her experiments will yield insights about what happened billions of years ago.
Szeinbaum is a postdoctoral researcher in the labs of Jennifer Glass, Christopher Reinhard, and Yuanzhi Tang, assistant professors in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Born, raised, and educated in Argentina, Szeinbaum came to Georgia Tech to study wastewater treatment.
After receiving a master’s degree in environmental engineering in 2009, she switched her focus to anaerobic physiology and microbial genetics. She joined the lab of School of Biological Sciences Professor Thomas DiChristina and earned a Ph.D. 2014.
Szeinbaum is among many early-career scientists addressing the fundamental questions driving the burgeoning field of astrobiology at Georgia Tech: How did life start? Where could life exist outside Earth? Where is life going on Earth and beyond? How would we recognize life outside of Earth?
The conditions of early Earth could be similar to current conditions in potentially habitable bodies in the universe, Szeinbaum says. “Understanding what forms of life may have existed in the past can help us understand whether life exists somewhere else.”
For their groundbreaking accomplishments with the Internship and Co-op Carbon Reduction Challenge, Kim Cobb and Beril Toktay have been selected as the recipients of the 2018 Innovation in Co-curricular Education Award, administered by the Center for Teaching and Learning.
Kim Cobb is Georgia Power Chair and ADVANCE Professor in the College of Sciences. Beril Toktay is Brady Family Chair in Management, ADVANCE Professor, and Director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business in the Scheller School of Business.
In 2008, Cobb launched the Carbon Reduction Challenge for an undergraduate course in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences: EAS 3110, “Energy, the Environment, and Society.” In this course, she challenged student teams to develop projects during the semester that will yield real-world reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, if implemented.
The challenge took off. Over the years, winning projects have resulted in aggregate reductions of more than 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to the annual carbon footprints of 100 Americans.
“A focus on innovation and experiential learning are key differentiators of Georgia Tech. The Carbon Reduction Challenge gives students a hands-on experience in innovating for sustainability."
In 2016, Toktay teamed up with Cobb to translate the challenge into a co-curricular offering for Georgia Tech students participating in co-ops and internships. The initiative was supported by a philanthropic donation from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation NextGen Fund and matching funds from the Scheller College of Business Dean’s Innovation Fund. They bet that students embedded within their partner organizations would have easy access to key decision-makers and data that would enable them to achieve even larger carbon dioxide reductions.
They were right. Launched in summer 2017, the co-op and internship version was immensely successful. In just one semester, student developed and implemented projects that will avoid more than 5,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over 10 years. That amount offsets the carbon footprints of at least 300 Americans for one year. Furthermore, projects will translate into reduced costs at their partner organizations amounting to tens of thousands of dollars over 10 years.
“When I first started the Carbon Reduction Challenge, I never dreamed that it would result in such massive impacts,” Cobb says. “I am excited to work with Beril to grow the challenge at Georgia Tech and beyond.”
Participating students acquired valuable, real-world experience. They learned to harness their creativity and navigate complex organizational hierarchies in companies large and small. Embraced by partner organizations, such as SunTrust Bank and Delta Airlines, the Internship and Co-op Carbon Reduction Challenge is helping to establish Georgia Tech as a regional leader in sustainability.
Students "are learning a life-long lesson: that saving carbon can save us money, while strengthening key partnerships."
One student says the challenge “made me more aware of the importance of being a steward for the environment.”
“A focus on innovation and experiential learning are key differentiators of Georgia Tech,” Toktay says. “The Carbon Reduction Challenge gives students a hands-on experience in innovating for sustainability. My hope is that it inspires them to continue to do that throughout their careers.”
Cobb and Toktay not only perform world-class research, but also inspire and equip the next generation of sustainability champions to solve society’s most pressing challenges. As a colleague puts it, “they are wonderful examples for our entire faculty.”
“As a climate scientist, I take great heart in seeing the next generation take such concrete, scalable action on climate solutions,” Cobb says. “They are learning a life-long lesson: that saving carbon can save us money, while strengthening key partnerships.”
Says Toktay: “I’m proud of the unique educational innovation this challenge represents: a collaboration of the Colleges of Business and Sciences and a format that empowers interns to pitch their ideas at the highest levels of the organization.”
The College of Sciences has selected Matthew Baker as the inaugural Associate Dean for Faculty Development. The position was created to complement the positions of Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Associate Dean for Research. Baker is a professor in the School of Mathematics. He will begin his new role on July 1, 2018.
The Associate Dean for Faculty Development in the College of Sciences is responsible for developing, implementing, and assessing programs that enhance the instructional, research, and career opportunities for faculty. Key areas of responsibility include faculty hiring; mentoring of faculty; faculty retention, promotion, and tenure; and diversity, equity, and inclusion at the faculty level.
“I’m delighted that Matt is willing to be the first holder of this important leadership position,” College of Sciences Dean and Sutherland Chair Paul Goldbart says. “As a mathematician of global renown, an educator celebrated for the clarity of his lectures, and a faculty member with demonstrated accomplishments in service to Georgia Tech and the worldwide mathematics community, Matt is well positioned to advance our deep commitment to the professional development of faculty members as thriving, fulfilled researcher-educators who have extraordinary impact.”
Baker joined Georgia Tech in 2004 as an assistant professor of mathematics and was promoted to full professor in 2011. As a pure mathematician, he is treasured by the international mathematics community for the depth, power, and creativity of his research in some of the most demanding aspects of pure mathematics, such as algebraic and arithmetic geometry. His accomplishments have been recognized by numerous awards, including his election as a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society in 2012 and selection for the Simons Fellowship in Mathematics in 2017.
As an educator, Baker is deeply committed to enhancing students’ experience, even in the most challenging mathematics courses. This has brought him awards for teaching excellence from both Georgia Tech and the University System of Georgia. Baker is also a thoughtful and effective leader, as he demonstrated during his service as Director of Undergraduate Studies in the School of Mathematics.
“I’m honored to have been selected, and I look forward to being part of the College of Sciences leadership team,” Baker says. “I am eager to build upon the faculty-mentoring activities that Associate Dean for Research Julia Kubanek has introduced in recent years. I hope that my unique perspective as a mathematician is helpful in addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion – and of fairness and transparency in hiring, promotion, retention, and salary considerations. I look forward to supporting the needs of our diverse, accomplished, and ambitious faculty.”
James J. Wray has been selected to receive the 2018 Outstanding Achievement in Early Career Research Award. An associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Wray is a planetary scientist who studies the surfaces of planets. He is motivated by the search for life in the universe or conditions that support life. His research focuses on Mars and icy moons in the outer solar system.
Wray’s research has advanced understanding of the surface properties of Mars. He and his students use spacecraft imaging, spectral, and in situ data to explore surface compositions, search for organic molecules from the soils and rocks, and map minerals across the Martian surface. His work has contributed substantially to our understanding of water on Mars throughout the planet’s geologic history.
Modern Mars is cold, dry, and inhospitable, despite the planet’s rich aqueous history. Yet in 2011, a team including Wray found dark streaks that form and propagate down the warmest Martian slopes in summer and fade in winter. The process, called recurring slope lineae (RSL), was reported in Science.
RSL could be driven by water flows or by dry granular flows. Wray and then-Ph.D. student Lujendra Ojha developed methods to analyze the process. Using NASA’s imaging spectrometer for Mars and infrared spectrometry, they detected water-bearing perchlorate localized to RSL during active periods.
The finding, reported in Nature Geoscience in 2015, caught the public’s imagination, because – at least on Earth – life as we know it requires water. Scientists widely discussed the confirmation of wet activity on modern Mars. The paper has been cited close to 200 times, indicating its wide impact.
“With record federal support and renewed public and commercial interest, it is a fantastic time to be a planetary scientist.”
However, water is not enough. Using instruments in Curiosity, the car-sized rover exploring a crater on Mars, Wray contributes to the next step in the search for life outside Earth: finding organic building blocks for biochemistry. Wray has focused his efforts on the search for nitrogen-bearing compounds in Martian rocks and soil and on establishing a global inventory of carbon, including the carbon locked in carbonate-bearing rocks.
The work on water on Mars has influenced research and planning at NASA. Wray has participated in a group that studied the implications of RSL on international policies to protect planets. He is involved in the design of the next robotic orbiter to characterize RSL throughout the Martian day.
Wray enables NASA’s “Journey to Mars” program, which aims to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. With the help of his expertise on spectral analysis of the Martian surface, a research team recently found massive subsurface ice sheets, which could be accessible to astronauts.
Beyond Mars, Wray is focused on the icy moons of giant planets, such as Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. His work is informing high-level discussions of what instruments would be most useful for outer-solar-system missions.
“I am humbled to receive this honor from Georgia Tech, where so many others are also doing outstanding research that is changing the world every day,” Wray says. “I am grateful to my supportive colleagues at Georgia Tech and beyond, and most of all to the students I have been able to work with here, who have consistently exceeded my grandest expectations. With record federal support and renewed public and commercial interest, it is a fantastic time to be a planetary scientist.”
College of Sciences Dean and Sutherland Chair Paul Goldbarthas been named dean of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. He will begin at UT Austin on August 1.
“Georgia Tech’s reputation as a global leader in the sciences has been fostered and enhanced by the leadership of Paul Goldbart,” said Rafael L. Bras, Georgia Tech provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs and K. Harrison Brown Family Chair. “He is the rare blend of gifted administrator and skilled academic that will no doubt make an impact at The University of Texas at Austin. He will be greatly missed by his colleagues and students alike at Georgia Tech.”
Goldbart joined the Georgia Tech faculty in 2011. He has served as the dean since 2013 and as the inaugural Betsy Middleton and John Clark Sutherland Chair since 2016. As dean, he oversaw the launch of doctoral programs in Quantitative Biosciences and in Ocean Science and Engineering and a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience, as well as the growth of living-learning communities devoted to science and mathematics. He also served in critical leadership roles including co-chairing the Taskforce on the Learning Environment, a group charged to assess Georgia Tech’s academic culture.
As a faculty member in the School of Physics, Goldbart’s research interests include statistical and soft matter physics, nanoscience, quantum fluids and solids, quantum information, and law and economics. He has authored more than 150 publications and co-authored a textbook, “Mathematics for Physics – A Guided Tour for Graduate Students.”
Before joining Georgia Tech, Goldbart spent 25 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A fellow of the American Physical Society and the Institute of Physics, Goldbart earned a B.A. in Physics and Theoretical Physics from Cambridge University in 1981. He received an M.S. in Physics from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1982, and a Diploma in Mathematical Physics and Ph.D. from Imperial College, University of London in 1985.
Goldbart’s selection as dean also means the departure of his wife, Jenny Singleton, professor and associate chair in the School of Psychology. During her tenure at Georgia Tech, Singleton has also served as a co-chair of the Student Mental Health Action Team and as the assistant provost for Advocacy and Conflict Resolution since January. Singleton will become a member of the UT Austin faculty. Goldbart and Singleton have been married since 1988 and have two children, Oliver (B.S. Computer Science, 2015) and Greta.
“To say I have mixed emotions would be an understatement,” Goldbart said. “My time at Georgia Tech has been immensely rewarding, and I will miss this close-knit family. I am grateful for the opportunity presented to me by UT Austin and look forward to tackling this new challenge.”
Details on an interim dean appointment as well as the national search for a new leader for the College of Sciences will be made available in the coming weeks.
TheBestSchools.org has named Judith A. Curry one of the top 50 women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The list comprises “the best women in their respective fields...with a lot of innate talent, certainly, but who have also put in a great deal of extremely hard work,” according to the list’s compiler.
Curry is professor emerita in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS). She is named for the fields of geophysical sciences and climatology, the only person listed in these categories.
Her scientific accomplishments are reflected in 186 peer-reviewed papers. She is also co-author or co-editor of three textbooks:
- with Vitaly I. Khvorostyanov, “Thermodynamics, Kinetics, and Microphysics of Clouds” (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
- with James R. Holton and John Pyle, “Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences” (Academic Press, 2003)
- with Peter J. Webster, “Thermodynamics of Atmospheres and Oceans” (Academic Press, 1998)
In addition, she cofounded Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN) with colleague and EAS Professor Peter J. Webster. The company aims to find new and better ways to apply weather and climate data, weather forecast information, and future regional climate scenarios to real-world decision-making to manage risks associated with the variability of climate and weather.
Curry was chair of EAS from 2002 to 2014. She retired from Georgia Tech at the end of 2016. She was named professor emerita in January 2017.
Her tenure as chair of EAS was marked by the high quality of faculty recruited under her leadership. The fruits of those efforts continue to be realized. For example, in the latest graduate school rankings by the U.S. News & World Report for Earth Sciences, Georgia Tech’s Earth program advanced four steps to rank 38, putting it in the top 30% of U.S. institutions surveyed.
Curry received a bachelor’s degree in geography from Northern Illinois University in 1974 and a Ph.D. in geophysical sciences from the University of Chicago in 1982.
Before joining Georgia Tech, she taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1982-86), Purdue University (1986-89), Pennsylvania State University (1989-92), and the University of Colorado, Boulder (1992-02).
Curry has served on NASA’s Advisory Council Earth Science Subcommittee, on the Climate Working Group of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and on the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Climate Research Group.
She was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2004 and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007.
A team of Georgia Institute of Technology researchers will head to West Antarctica next winter as part of an international collaboration to explore a melting glacier that could significantly affect global sea levels. The Thwaites Glacier drains the ice from an area roughly the size of Florida, accounting for around 4 percent of current global sea-level rise — an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s and looks to be accelerating.
The Georgia Tech team will send Icefin, its home-built autonomous vehicle, through a borehole near the grounding line of the glacier to explore underneath the ice. This will allow it to map, for the first time ever, how the geology beneath the surface and the interactions between the ice and ocean water are affecting how the glacier is changing.
The mission is part of a $25 million international research collaboration led by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
This will be the fourth Antarctic voyage for Icefin, but the first to the remote glacier. In fact, only a few dozen people have ever stepped foot on Thwaites.
“Thwaites Glacier is one of the fastest changing regions in the Antarctic,” said Britney Schmidt, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who leads the Icefin project. “With individual research programs, we can only investigate small parts of the system at a time. So much of West Antarctica may depend on the stability of Thwaites — it’s a critical time to come together to explore the whole system to reveal whether it’s reached a tipping point. We’re thrilled to be a part of this incredible effort.”
The research program is called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC). It includes nine projects that will help scientists understand whether the glacier’s collapse could begin in the next few decades or centuries.
Icefin is one part of the MELT project, which is overseen by Keith Nicholls of the British Antarctic Survey and New York University’s David Holland. Investigators from Penn State, University of California Irvine and the University of Kansas are also involved. According to a joint press release from the NSF and NERC, MELT “will measure the melting at the ice-ocean interface of the glacier, to understand the processes involved and its potential for triggering increased sea-level rise.”
Icefin will use sonar to map the ice and sea floor and explore how the two are interacting. Its onboard cameras will also provide images of both areas. Icefin’s sensors will measure the temperature, depth and salinity of the water underneath the glacier to learn how and where the glacier is melting.
“The grounding line of a glacier is the place where it goes from sliding along the continent to floating in the ocean. This is where the glacier can become unstable,” said Schmidt. “Melt water from upstream under the glacier escapes out into the ocean across the grounding line, and warm ocean water can melt it back from below. Icefin was designed with this kind of a project in mind —measuring the properties of the ice, ocean and seafloor where other vehicles and instruments cannot reach to map these changes in the underbelly of the glacier.”
Antarctica’s glaciers contribute to sea-level rise when more ice is lost to the ocean than is replaced by snow. To fully understand the causes of changes in ice flow requires research on the ice itself, the nearby ocean and the Antarctic climate in the region. In addition to Icefin, the program will deploy the most up-to-date instruments and techniques available, from drills that can make access holes 1,500 meters into the ice with jets of hot water to autonomous submarines like the Autobsub Long Range affectionately known around the world as Boaty McBoatface.
The nearest permanently occupied research station to the Thwaites Glacier is more than 1,000 miles away. Researchers on the ice will rely on aircraft support from American and British research stations. Oceanographers and geophysicists will approach the glacier from the sea in icebreaker ships. In addition to the United States and United Kingdom, the ITGC collaboration includes researchers from South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland.
Portions of this article were taken from the full NSF-NERC press release.
Editor's Note: This story by Melissa Fralick originally appeared as part of the special feature "Campus Without Borders," in the Spring 2018 Issue of Georgia Tech's Alumni Magazine.
IF THERE IS LIFE ANYWHERE ELSE IN OUR SOLAR SYSTEM, Britney Schmidt knows it’s likely to be found on Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons.
Europa has a lot in common with our planet. Like the Earth, it has an iron core, a rocky mantle, and a salt water ocean—though Europa’s ocean is encased under an ice shell up to 15 miles thick.
But as of yet, no spacecraft has explored beneath the icy surface.
Schmidt, who is an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, hopes to change that. She and her team of Tech students and researchers are testing a modular autonomous vehicle, called Icefin, which they hope will one day lead to driving vehicles under Europa’s ice.
But before they’re able to launch Icefin into space and land on Europa, they’re working here on Earth’s iciest region: Antarctica. Antarctica provides the perfect environment for testing, because it mimics many of the conditions expected to be found on Europa.
Vast ice shelves? Check. A deep, salty ocean below? Check. Challenging to navigate? Check.
“Astronauts go out and learn geology on Earth before they go to the moon or before they’ll go operate on Mars,” Schmidt says. “So that’s kind of what we’re doing here— a spacecraft mission under the ice before we go and attempt that on Europa.”
Schmidt and a team of researchers, including graduate students Justin Lawrence, Dan Dichek, Ben Hurwitz and Chad Ramey, along with research engineer Matt Meister, ME 15, returned to campus this January following a three-month field season, during which they successfully operated a new version of Icefin under Antarctica’s McMurdo Ice Shelf for the first time. The missile-shaped vehicle, which is 12 feet in length and 9 inches in diameter, was designed to be small and modular enough to transport onto remote ice shelves, but sophisticated enough to carry a variety of scientific instruments and sensors. It can be driven under the ice remotely, like a remote-controlled car, or programmed to drive autonomously.
The team includes students from various disciplines who bring their expertise to the project. For example, Lawrence is working toward a PhD in planetary science, while Hurwitz is part of a new PhD program at Tech in ocean sciences and engineering.
“The engineers and scientists work really closely, which is fantastic for field work,” Lawrence says.
Before their recent fieldwork with Icefin, all scientific data from the massive Ross Ice Shelf, which is roughly the size of France, came from just three drill holes.
“We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about under the Ross Ice Shelf,” Hurwitz says.
Schmidt says that over the course of this Icefin project—a collaboration with a New Zealand research team—exploring through three additional holes drilled into the Ross Ice Shelf will more than double the data previously available.
“And with the vehicle, it’s a type of data that we’ve never been able to get, which is driving around and mapping what’s going on under there for a few kilometers on either side of the access point,” Schmidt says.
While their field work in Antarctica serves as a dry run for a future mission to Europa, Schmidt and her students are also advancing science here on Earth by exploring uncharted territory deep under the ice.
“Antarctica is the most beautiful, most inspiring, and hardest place to work that I have ever been. You just feel so small and insignificant and like you’re so lucky to be there in that minute. And I imagine that’s what it would be like if you were standing on the surface of Europa.”
“This field season was spectacularly successful from an engineering standpoint,” Hurwitz says. “But we also got much more science data than we could have expected.”
During their recent trip, Icefin’s footage revealed a surprising diversity of life deep under the ice , Schmidt says. A seal bumped into the vehicle at a depth of 200 to 250 meters. The craft also encountered a rare, giant Antarctic fish called a toothfish.
Icefin was able to travel to the sea floor at a depth of almost 800 meters. Plus, the team was able to navigate the vehicle under a rift in the ice shelf and discovered ice caves that were likely formed by cold water flowing down the rift.
“Much of what we saw this time around no one has ever seen before,” Schmidt says. “It’s cool because the vehicle has gone deeper than, as far as we know, any other vehicle in the area has ever gone and way deeper than divers can go. So all this work is really, really new.”
Lawrence, who’s been working with Schmidt since 2015, was excited to view the ocean floor.
“It was incredible to see it for the first time with a vehicle that we built,” he says.
This was Schmidt’s fifth season in Antarctica, and she’s already planning next year’s trip, when the team will focus on Icefin’s automated process and gathering much more science data. She refers to the trips as seasons, because the team typically spends around three months each year in the field during the Antarctic spring and summer.
“It’s a weird way to live,” she says. “You’re spending a quarter of your life down there, and then you’re spending the other three quarters of it planning to be down there. I’m always in the field, whether it’s physical or mental.”
Schmidt’s graduate students say they feel fortunate to be part of such groundbreaking research.
“It’s not a common thing and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m thankful that there is so much support for this kind of work,” Lawrence says.
Humans may never step foot on the surface of Europa, and an unmanned mission to the icy moon likely won’t happen for another few decades. But until then, Schmidt says she feels lucky to be able to spend her time working in Antarctica to advance the search for life in the cosmos.
“Antarctica is the most beautiful, most inspiring, and hardest place to work that I have ever been,” Schmidt says. “You just feel so small and insignificant and like you’re so lucky to be there in that minute. That is how I feel every day that I walk out there. And I imagine that’s what it would be like if you were standing on the surface of Europa.”
When Amy Lynn Williamson moved to Georgia to attend Georgia Tech, it was the first time she had ever moved from Ohio, where most of her family lives. She completed her B.S. in Geosciences at Denison University, in Granville, a small town close to home. For Williamson, the move to Midtown Atlanta was a big step.
But she couldn’t resist the draw of Georgia Tech. “I was attracted to Georgia Tech because of its close-knit geophysics department,” Williamson says, “Even though Georgia Tech is a large research-oriented institute, EAS [School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences] maintains a small and supportive environment.” Interdepartmental group meetings, yearly student symposia, and a graduate student activity group are some features of EAS that, she says, made her feel part of the community.
Williamson is receiving a Ph.D. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?
Georgia Tech taught me not only how to conduct research but also how to communicate it to a wider audience. In the research group of Andrew Newman, everyone worked on the same broad topics but each one had distinct research projects. This means constantly presenting and discussing our work and learning about everyone else’s projects. I had opportunities to present my research in small group meetings and in domestic and international conferences.
Georgia Tech and EAS were helpful every step of the way, from travel to large conferences to facilitating small symposia and events in the school.
"Georgia Tech and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences were helpful every step of the way, from travel to large conferences to facilitating small symposia and events in the school."
What is your proudest achievement at Georgia Tech?
Defending my Ph.D. dissertation.
Not only am I in the first generation of my family to attend college, but I also will be the first person in my family to hold a doctorate degree.
What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?
The hours spent in the gym with my groupmate discussing research and getting in shape to prepare for lugging instruments up the side of Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano.
Who knew that lunges and talks about crustal deformation would mix?
What unique learning activities did you undertake?
During my first summer, I joined a research cruise to retrieve ocean bottom seismometers from off the coast of Vancouver Island. This experience showed me the breadth of research in seismology and geodesy. It was also my first to be on a research ship, and – given my new-found knowledge of sea sickness – it might be my last.
Midway through my Ph.D., I participated in a research-abroad program hosted by the National Science Foundation and the Australian Academy of Sciences. The program allowed me to work with new research collaborators in Canberra, Australia.
During this trip, I gained new perspective about my research by interacting with research groups that I otherwise would have interacted with only occasionally. I also experienced living and working abroad and the surreal situation of having a mob of kangaroos live right outside my front door.
What advice would you give to incoming graduate students at Georgia Tech?
Be involved in the greater Atlanta community. Get involved in outreach related to your field, attend events off campus, and make Atlanta more like a home, and not just a place where you work and study.
Even though I love Georgia Tech, it was great to get off campus, explore, and meet new people. I did this through running, with the local running club. Keeping up with a hobby off campus also helps manage the stressful moments during graduate studies.
Where are you headed after graduation?
I am headed to the University of Oregon where I will be a postdoctoral researcher focusing on tsunami hazards for the Pacific Northwest. My studies in the Newman research group helped me prepare for this role. Even though my dissertation topic and my future work in Oregon focus on a field that is not currently a major research area in Georgia Tech, my advisor has been incredibly helpful.
New degree programs. More undergraduate admissions. Participation in Nobel Prize-winning research. A Tech Green solar eclipse watch party.
Paul Goldbart's five years as the Dean of the College of Sciences were highlighted by changes, growth, community-building, and opportunities. Goldbart, the College's Betsy Middleton and John Clark Sutherland Chair, talks about his time at Georgia Tech in this first installment of a two-part audio story that also serves as a preview for the forthcoming College of Sciences podcast, ScienceMatters.
This audio story is hosted and produced by College of Sciences Communications Officer Renay San Miguel. You can listen to the story by clicking on the image link to the right, or you can read the transcript below.
Part 2 will be available on May 16, 2018.
If you want to know more about ScienceMatters, click here.
Renay San Miguel: Hello. I’m Renay San Miguel with the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. By now, you may have learned that College of Sciences Dean Paul Goldbart has accepted a position to be the next dean of the College of Natural Sciences in the University of Texas at Austin. The Lone Star State’s gain is our loss. We are sad to see Paul go, and we thank him for his extraordinary service to the College of Sciences and to Georgia Tech.
I interviewed Paul in early 2018 for the premier episode of the College of Sciences’ podcast called “ScienceMatters.” With the new appointment in Texas, however, we’ve recast the interview into a two-part audio story to serve as a valedictory for Paul, as well as a preview of “ScienceMatters,” which will begin broadcasting later in 2018.
Here is Dean Paul Goldbart in his own words, and you can hear him as both engaging physics professor and forward-thinking administrator as he charts opportunities for growth of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences, and recalls the highlights of his tenure.
Essential, exciting research in astrobiology
Paul Goldbart: So let me begin with astrobiology. Once upon a time, that title sounded like a crank science. It’s really moved to center stage now, incredibly exciting. So we have folks really thinking about how to search for life in space and in time, looking out into the cosmos. Wouldn’t it be remarkable to find out where our neighboring colonies of life are? And we have communities looking at that from the aspects of biology and chemistry, from Earth and atmospheric sciences, and physics. We have people thinking about exoplanets, how you find and discover the properties of planets orbiting other stars. So tremendous range and tremendous interdisciplinarity.
We also have folks who are looking back in time. How did life start here on Earth? Wonderful activities in chemistry, Earth and atmospheric science and biology, looking at this tiny, thin sliver of a shell of life here on our remarkable planet, and people essentially doing the archaeology of the oceans: What was the chemical composition of the oceans back in time? Was there enough oxygen to sustain life? Folks working on that kind of really fundamental and incredibly exciting question.
So astrobiology is really central, and we have a thriving community. And it reaches out well beyond the College of Sciences—interacting with folks in the Ivan Allen College of the Humanities—wonderful community there and elsewhere on campus, too. So delighted to see that here at Georgia Tech.
Essential exciting research in microbial ecology
Let me turn to another area in the life sciences that I’m very excited about: the area of microbial ecology. There are microbes everywhere, all around us, and we live in this, hopefully, symbiotic relationship with them. And the study of microbial ecology is really taking shape quite wonderfully here with an emerging community of people from biological sciences, from chemistry, and from physics. And this subject needs tools all the way from genetics and biology, through game theory, physics and mathematics, all the way into medicine.
So just to give you a flavor of the subject how microbes, and then microbial infections, infect us, harm us, is really a question of the shape and structure of the colonies that they form. And so physicists are teaming up with biologists to understand the kind of materials that form through microbial infections. And this is taking us all the way from basic science through to wound care and all the way to healthcare and cystic fibrosis. So I must say, from my perspective, it’s incredibly exciting to see science, both at the fundamental level, but also reaching out into the community.
Renay San Miguel: And so many applications for what is being researched here. You know, as we have this conversation, we’re going through one of the worst flu epidemics that the country has seen in a long time and—but there are so many things that this would be applied to, you know, to warfare and treating wounds in battlefield, things like that. It’s just very exciting research.
Paul Goldbart: That’s right. And healthcare within hospitals — microbial infections arise in hospitals at an enormous rate. And so what’s so exciting is to look at this long arc of history and feel that we are the tip of the sphere and that the sphere, currently, in developing new knowledge and understanding to inform the healthcare of the future, and that’s a remarkable, remarkable place to be.
Welcoming students with a celestial event
Renay San Miguel: Let’s talk about the eclipse.
[Applause and cheering]
Renay San Miguel: On August 21st, 2017, the first day of classes, thousands of members of the Georgia Tech community descended on Tech Green to watch the moon’s shadow cover 97 percent of the afternoon sun.
Georgia Tech student: I will always remember this because I saw the eclipse and started college on the same day at the best university.
Paul Goldbart: College of Sciences along with the Provost’s office put together a quite exquisite array of activities. Those of you who live in the Southeast might know of Woodstock, Georgia. This was a different kind of Woodstock. This was a remarkable event on campus.
We had thousands and thousands of people coming together, congregating, all inspired by an eclipse. And eclipses, of course, go back in history and they’ve had quite interesting sociological impacts ushering in new eras and so forth. And so to watch our community come and react—our community of scientists and mathematicians and technologists and engineers and others come together, but react in this wonderfully human way and enjoy this remarkable astronomical event was really wonderful.
And so just to see the community out there with this festival atmosphere was great. And the only concern, really, is what are we going to do next year? Really, it was a marvelous time.
Helping to prove Einstein was right
Renay San Miguel: Tell me about gravitational waves. I mean the idea of the institute and some of the faculty and the researchers and students here involved in what would eventually be a Nobel Prize-winning effort had to be just so pleasing for you.
Paul Goldbart: Well this is very exciting. So I’ve been at Georgia Tech for about seven years, and astrophysics was launched here a little bit before I arrived and has really taken root quite beautifully with wonderful leadership initially from Pablo Laguna and now from Deidre Shoemaker.
But let me tell you a little bit about the story because the story really goes back now a little bit over 100 years: Albert Einstein has put together his masterpiece theory of what’s called “general relativity,” which is really the first successful post-Newtonian understanding of gravity.
And the remarkable shift in thinking that came about with Einstein in 1915 was the idea that space and time, themselves, have a kind of pliability or elasticity to them; they’re not just a rigid stage on which the history of the universe unfolds. But, they are, in their motions and changes, part of that story; they are actually actors, not just the stage.
And one of the predictions goes something like this: You may know that if you shake an electrical charge, out comes electromagnetic radiation. That, for example, is how when you heat an atom, it puffs off a little bit of light; that’s where we get the yellow of sodium lamps, for example. So shaking, charges. Electrical charges cause a ripple in the electromagnetic field that propagates outward, and that’s what we call light or, in other frequencies, different forms of radiation like X-rays or infrared radiation, just to give two examples.
After Einstein in 1915, we understood that the same kind of thing happens with mass. If you shake some mass somewhere in the universe, that mass actually causes a ripple. But now the ripple is not in the electromagnetic field, but it’s in space and time—the actual geometry of space and time themselves—and that ripple propagates out, and it takes a certain amount of time to arrive at a distance.
So, for example, if the sun were to magically disappear, we wouldn’t know it for the eight or so minutes that it would take for the gravitational field to change and respond to a new configuration, the one that would be there in the absence of the sun, at which time the planet, Earth, would fly off in a kind of tangential trajectory rather than its almost circular orbit.
Ripples through time and space
So the basic idea is that masses, when they move and they accelerate, they can give rise to a rippling in space and time that propagates like a wave, like the ripples that you find on the surface of a pond when you throw a stone in. The tough part of the story is that space and time are remarkably stiff, and so it takes very big masses to have a perceptible, measurable impact.
And where can you find big masses accelerating quickly? Well, you can find them in the mergers of black holes. So I remind you that black holes are stars that have collapsed under gravity so much so, that not even light, essentially, not even light can escape from them; that’s why they’re black.
They’re very, very dense objects. And they can come, occasionally, in pairs and they orbit around one another in the same way, roughly speaking, that the moon orbits around the Earth.
Now what happens is that these two black holes are moving around one another and, because of this idea of space and time having a kind of elasticity to them, that binary black hole system radiates out energy in the form of gravitational waves. And just a little bit like the yolks of two eggs frying in a frying pan, they move around one another and, eventually, in this cataclysmic event, they merge into a single yolk. Here, they merge into a single black hole, and as they do, they give out an astonishing amount of energy in the form of gravitational radiation which then propagates through the cosmos and that’s the way it goes—until LIGO.
Large instruments looking for small moves
And LIGO is this experiment, this collaboration—roughly 1,000 people working hand-in-glove, two stations: Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, and there are experiments at both sites. And the reason there are two sites is that you want to understand coincidence. If a gravitational wave passes through one and then passes through the other, you know far they are apart and you know how long that ought to take, and you can really have a chance of finding the needle in the proverbial haystack of these very, very small signals.
So the experiment has been in the making for several decades, fantastic support from the federal government even though this is an incredibly challenging experiment to undertake, and I applaud the citizens of the United States for supporting this really heroic endeavor which, I think, is as much part of culture as it is a part of technology and science.
So the experiment goes like this: You have to detect this wave coming through. And what does the wave do? Well, it changes the shape of space and time, but it does so at a very small level. And just to give you a sense of the smallness of the changes that have to be detected, let me ask you to look at your pinkie. Look at your little finger and ask, how broad is the nail? Well, roughly speaking, it’s about a centimeter across, something like that. Now shrink down by about 8 powers of 10—so about 100 million— and that gets you to about the size of an atom—not enough. Now go down by another 8 powers of 10.
That gets you to about the size of a nucleus of an atom, but smaller: about a thousandth of the size of the nucleus of an atom. And that is the distance, or change in separation, between the detectors of the experiment in an evacuated tube about four kilometers long—one in Louisiana, one in Washington—that needed to be detected. Quite a challenge.
I’m told that it’s as if we knew the distance from Earth to the nearest star to within the thickness of a human hair.
Renay San Miguel: No! [Chuckles]
Paul Goldbart: I haven’t checked that calculation but it sounds a bit right to me. Quite a challenge. And this, nevertheless, was accomplished. Not only was it accomplished, but it was accomplished the day after the experiment was turned on — 20 years in the making. And it’s as if nature had conspired to send us this perfect signal.
Renay San Miguel: It was just waiting for us to build these instruments.
Paul Goldbart: Exactly. “Are you ready? Are you ready?” [Laughter] So to give you a sense of scale, the gravitational event, the merger of two black holes that was detected about two and a half years ago, and that wave has been propagating through space, waiting, [laughter] and arriving here at Earth to be detected.
Now, since then—and we say in science sometimes “Yesterday’s sensation, today’s calibration”—that event is one of several that have now been detected; it’s raining black hole mergers out there. And the most recent event, another truly stunning event much closer to Earth, was the signature of the collision—not now of two black holes, but of two neutron stars.
Renay San Miguel: And that particular celestial collision would result in another major breakthrough for College of Science researchers. That, along with Paul Goldbart’s vision for the future of the College of Sciences, is coming up in Part 2 of this audio story. I’m Renay San Miguel with the Georgia Tech College of Sciences.