November 2020 - Letter from the Directors

November 2020 - Photo of campus in morning sunlight
Early morning light streams through the trees on the Broad Branch Road campus in November. Photo credit: Kelsey Prissel
Thursday, November 19, 2020 

Leading the Field

Anat Shahar presents a featured plenary talk about planet accretion on the Centennial Inspire Stage at the AGU 2019 Fall Meeting.

In these newsletters, we usually highlight the achievements of our staff scientists. This month we again see examples of the leadership roles our scientists take on.

For example, we’re celebrating the recent election of Staff Scientists Anat Shahar to the presidential track of the SEDI (Study of the Earth’s Deep Interior) section of the American Geophysical Union and Sally Tracy as incoming Secretary of the Mineral and Rock Physics section.

These elections exemplify our sustained leadership in the scientific community and continue the long-running relationship between Carnegie Science and AGU. This connection includes Louis Bauer, the first director of DTM and the second president of AGU (1922-1924); Henry Washington, Geophysical Laboratory (GL) staff scientist and fourth president of AGU (1926-1928); DTM staff scientist, GL director, and Carnegie president Philip Abelson who was AGU president from 1972 to 1974; and most recently DTM director Sean Solomon who served as the AGU president from 1996 to 1998.

G. W. Littlehales, L. A. Bauer (DTM), H. S. Washington (GL), and H. H. Kimball on board the Regina d'Italia, en route to the Rome meeting of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG).

This month’s Neighborhood Lecture brought to light another component of our mission— the postgraduate education of the next leaders in the fields of science pursued on our Broad Branch Road Campus. 

Former GL postdoc, now Professor at UC Davis, Sarah Stewart presented the visually and intellectually stunning story of the giant impact 4.4 billion years ago that likely formed the Moon and “reset” the Earth in the process.  The presentation was enjoyed live by over 400 attendees. The recorded talk is available for watching on our YouTube channel. Sarah, who has won a number of awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018 for her extraordinarily creative and impactful work, provides a good example of the excellence of the people who choose the Carnegie Institution for their postdoctoral training. 

 Making Successful Postdocs

Postdoctoral Fellow Asmaa Boujibar discusses a poster with Staff Scientist Steve Shirey. The Broad Branch Road campus encourages conversations across fields of study.

Why are our postdocs so successful? Immodestly we like to think that one component is the quality of our scientific staff and the mentoring they provide.  More likely, the answer is that the research freedom provided by Carnegie is especially attractive to those scientists, at any career stage, that like to pursue the answers to the questions that keep them up at night. In a recent Postdoc Spotlight, Daniel Portner summarized this point, “The EPL community is so open and collaborative that I knew I would have ample opportunities to work with new networks and start projects I didn’t anticipate at the time.” 

A vital characteristic of the research environment at EPL is the level of openness on our campus. Early-career scientists have access to the breadth of expertise in the department, not just one specialist in their field. Another important aspect is that without the time demand of classroom teaching, EPL staff scientists have more time to do their own studies, spending considerable time in the laboratory, observing, or computing. This close connection to their own research activities also facilitates one-on-one training of the postdocs in their group. This relationship allows the flow of energy, enthusiasm, and new ideas from postdocs to scientific staff, while postdocs benefit from the experience, insight, and connections of the full scientific staff here at EPL.

Anat Shahar provided a good description of the attractiveness of this communal approach to research. “I was an intern with Dave Mao during the summer of 2002! I had never worked in a lab before and I was amazed at how fun it was to come to work every day and do research all day amongst such a fantastic group of scientists. I remember seeing Sarah Stewart, a postdoc at the time, give an informal talk and the discussion afterward was really lively and collegial and fun. I also remember Vera Rubin speaking to us at lunch about what it is like to be a scientist.It was that conversation that made me want to go to graduate school. I remember BBQs and picnics and just an amazing collegial and friendly atmosphere. I had never been around so many educated people in my life, and they were all so nice to me, asked me about myself, and truly cared to make my summer as successful as possible. I left that summer feeling like Carnegie was the most amazing place to work, and I was sure I wanted to come back!”

Applications Open for Postdoctoral Fellows

In 2019, DTM and GL combined their annual search for the best Carnegie postdoctoral fellowship applicants for the first time. That round of applications brought in ten new postdocs who, because of COVID-related travel restrictions, are still trickling in to start their stays at EPL.

Applications are now being accepted, until November 30, for next year’s fellowships. Given the past record of Carnegie postdocs, among these applicants are almost certainly leaders of the next generation of Earth and planetary scientists.  We will do our best to provide them the research opportunities, training, mentoring, and work environment that will allow them to excel in their future careers. 

A Moment of Thanks

Finally, this year has given thankfulness a new perspective. In the spirit of the holiday, we asked the scientists and staff of the Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL) to answer the question: What are you thankful for this year? You can read their responses here.

Here at EPL, we are thankful for the many things that keep us connected—like the internet, webcams, and Zoom. We’re thankful that science advances, even when society seems to be on pause. But, most of all, we’re thankful for people.

We’re thankful for the lab managers and IT professionals who quickly set up unprecedented levels of remote lab access. We’re thankful for our exceptional postdocs who bring fresh ideas to our campus. We’re thankful for our dedicated co-workers who keep our campus clean and functional—in person and virtually. And, we are especially thankful for all of our colleagues and supporters who reach out, collaborate, and encourage us to stay connected and motivated even when it’s felt challenging.

Thank YOU and have a happy Thanksgiving,

Rick Carlson and Mike Walter
Director and Deputy Director
Earth and Planets Laboratory
Carnegie Science