Brown researchers Alberto Saal, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, and Kim Cobb, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, were both named to the 2023 class of fellows by the American Geophysical Union, a scientific organization.
Fellows are nominated yearly for scientific efforts that have “transformed our understanding of the world, impacted our everyday lives, improved our communities and contributed to solutions for a sustainable future,” according to the description of the award on AGU’s website.
For Saal, the journey began long before the award, when he began studying volcanoes from the Ordovician Period, which occurred about 450 million years ago. As a PhD student in Argentina, he began satisfying his love of the outdoors — particularly “mountains, lakes and oceans” — by studying lava. “Research evolves depending on the opportunities that appear to you,” said Saal.
Since 1998, Saal has been working to identify the chemical composition of the interior of the earth using lava collected from Samoa, the Andes, the middle of the ocean and Antarctica. When he began at Brown in 2003, he began to wonder: “Why don’t I do the same thing for the Moon?”
Saal made a breakthrough in 2007, while working with samples from the Apollo missions. After identifying on the Moon concentrations of hydrogen and carbon similar to those on Earth, Saal and his team found evidence of water in the Moon’s interior. The findings suggested that “something that was very hot suddenly got quenched,” he said.
The discovery “undermined the bedrock conclusions of the Apollo missions that the Moon is much drier than the Earth and demanded rethinking of much of what we thought we knew about lunar petrology and geochemistry,” said Greg Hirth, chair of the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences.
New answers left room for many more questions, and Saal continues to conduct lunar studies as missions from the United States, India, China, Japan and the European Union attempt to collect more data from the Moon. “There’s a sense of awe, but more a desire to answer more questions,” Saal said. “There’s not much time for contemplation, since you’re trying to solve as best you can. But when you stop and think, and look at the Moon at night, you feel the ‘wow’ factor.”
Saal is “an exceptionally straight-forward person who approaches science with a strong moral compass,” Hirth wrote in an email to The Herald. Hirth said he was struck by the humble and welcoming nature Saal fostered in his lab, and he shared fond memories of a field trip to see Argentina’s geological wonders together.
To be named an AGU fellow is a “nice recognition from the community,” Saal said, adding that it gave him energy to do and learn more.
For Cobb, the award is the result of decades of work bridging climate science and community. As a college student in the 1990s, climate change struck Cobb as a “defining and enduring challenge of our species,” spurring her to pursue climate science as a career. Her work has involved building climate science toolkits at the local level, addressing the challenges of urban heat in Atlanta and transcending “traditional scholarship in building relationships with policymakers and deep investments in public engagement,” she said.
For partnerships in addressing the climate crisis to be “scalable and durable,” Cobb seeks to foster an understanding of shared goals of “safeguarding life, property (and) a thriving economy and keeping our nation secure.” She believes work connecting all levels of society and policy will engender change and has already achieved reductions in fossil fuel emissions and “massive public health wins.”
Cobb’s recent work at IBES has involved launching the Equitable Climate Futures initiative, which will “advance climate solutions to real-world stakeholders, whether they be elected officials (or) municipal leaders,” to combat “problems that arise from or (are) related to climate challenges in the climate crisis.”
“Stretching the margins of traditional scholarship, as I did, included public engagement and social media engagement of K-12 students, among other efforts,” said Cobb. Those efforts, while deeply meaningful to Cobb, are often less valued on the traditional physical science CV. For “my professional society (to) lift me up for this highest of honors gives me hope that all of the people that are out there trying to stretch the definitions of scholarship in this moment will find their work recognized and supported across academia,” she said.
As a woman in science, her accolades act as inspiration for more young girls wishing to succeed in STEM. Increasing the “vanishingly small” numbers of women recognized in the field is an important step to a more equitable landscape for women in the geosciences, she said, adding, “I think I’m the only mother of four daughters ever awarded an AGU fellow.”
This was a record year for women AGU Fellows, Cobb said.
James Marshall Shepherd, a former president of the American Meteorological Society and associate dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia, considers Cobb’s tremendous scientific achievements only a small part of her legacy. “She has revolutionized student engagement and the art of broader communication to the public, media and stakeholders,” Marshall wrote in an email to The Herald. “She represents the epitome of how a 21st-century scientist should engage.”
Ranjana “Jaanu” Ramesh is a Bruno Brief-er, photographer and Senior Staff Writer covering science & research. She loves service, empathetic medicine and working with kids. When not writing or studying comp neuro, Jaanu is outside, reading, skiing, or observing Providence wildlife (ie: squirrels).