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Past is prologue: Honoring young scientists

Early successes: Last November, the Geological Society of America awarded Michael Manga (top) the 2003 Donath Medal. And last December, the American Geophysical Union awarded the 2003 Macelwane Medal to Guido Salvucci, Kurt Cuffey and Liangxing Wen (second from top to bottom).
Four young geophysicists are making a big impact in radically different fields. Last year, the Geological Society of America (GSA) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) recognized them for their scientific contributions at or younger than age 35 and 36, bestowing them with the Donath and Macelwane medals, respectively.

Michael Manga, the recipient of GSA’s 2003 Donath Medal (and one of AGU’s Macelwane awardees in 2002), conducts goopy experiments with karo syrup in his lab at the University of California at Berkeley. His sweet experimental style draws in students — and has been successful in modeling mantle fluid dynamics.

Manga’s lab work translates into data for fluid mechanics models, for understanding bubbles in magma and basalt, geomorphologic processes and more. “Michael is truly a rare academic who, in addition to being a talented and prolific researcher, is also a patient and inspirational teacher,” observed Katherine Cushman, a former co-worker at the University of Oregon, in her citation for the Donath Medal.

Helge Gonnermann, a former graduate student and current post-doctoral co-worker, says Manga is very creative, supportive and accessible. “If you email him at 6 in the morning, you’ll have an answer an hour later, and at 8 in the evening, the same thing,” he says. Nevertheless, Gonnermann says, “he’s found a good balance between his professional and personal life.”

“It’s all about fun,” Manga says. He takes his family into the field with him, to work in areas along faults and volcanic systems.

Family also comes first for Guido Salvucci, who teaches undergraduate and graduate students and conducts research at Boston University. In a citation for Salvucci’s Macelwane award, Dara Entekhabi (a former advisor and current collaborator at MIT) said that despite his relative youth, Salvucci already has made “notable contributions” to his field.

Entekhabi cited Salvucci’s work using remote sensing to quantify evaporation, as well as his development of techniques to estimate evaporation from historic rainfall data and to characterize surface hydrology interactions between a variety of systems. His success, Entekhabi says, comes from a deep understanding and “great intuition” about hydrologic processes, as well as the fact that he is “dedicated to the problem, more so than his career.”

Salvucci says his future as a structural engineer derailed when he discovered the earth sciences at New York University, while pursuing a joint degree there in applied sciences and in civil engineering at Cooper Union. He went on to MIT, to pursue an environmental engineering degree. Salvucci says he thinks he may now feel the pressure from others’ expectations after receiving the award.

The expectation, as Garry Clarke of the University of British Columbia said in his citation for another Macelwane awardee, Kurt Cuffey, is that the “past is prologue to a brilliant future.” Cuffey is a glaciologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who has traveled to Greenland and the Antarctic for his fieldwork.

He started his undergraduate career with Richard Alley at Pennsylvania State University. Cuffey said that Alley “jump-started my research career and convinced me that glaciology is a field with many exciting and important questions.”

Cuffey’s work with data from Vostok (with Francoise Vimeux), Clarke said, was a “shrewd analysis” that lay to rest the question of carbon dioxide concentration forcing temperature conditions. Cuffey also “pioneered the use of borehole thermometry,” Clarke said, in calibrating temperature according to the oxygen isotope record in Greenland ice cores.

Cuffey recently broadened his research to include fluvial processes, which may keep his travels closer to home. He has always made enough time to have dinner with his partner and “to enjoy hiking in the mountains in summer,” Cuffey says. “My next highest priority is to do research” and to teach, he says.

Lianxing Wen, this year’s third recipient of the Macelwane award, traveled from China to the United States in order to see his field area, the center of Earth. “Seismologists really have the only opportunity to look at the inside of Earth,” says Wen, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York.

In his home province in southern China, Wen says there are not many large earthquakes. As a graduate student at CalTech, he experienced his first — the 1994 Northridge temblor. His graduate work at the Chinese Academy of Sciences had led him to CalTech, where he worked with Don Anderson and others on Earth’s internal structure and mantle convection problems.

“Lianxing’s talents and diversity of interest are well represented in his first 20 papers, ranging from theoretical seismology to the development of geodynamic models containing three-dimensional viscosity,” said Donald Helmberger of CalTech in his citation for Wen.

“I am mostly research oriented,” Wen says, which is part of the reason he likes science in the United States, where funding and research opportunities are richer. But he also says that his ideal environment includes teaching and working with graduate students.

Naomi Lubick

Lianxing Wen's homepage
Guido Salvucci's homepage
Michael Manga's homepage
Kurt Cuffey's homepage

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