NSF grant will support research of the Rocky Mountains, expose minority teens to earth and environmental sciences

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences wants to better understand the Rocky Mountains and how their modern, elevated landscape came to be.

The Rockies, based on plenty of marine fossils, were at sea level about 80 million years ago. They now sit high above sea level, hitting the 14,000-foot range in most areas.

Majie Fan has been awarded $485,627 from the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program to study the vertical movements that formed the Rockies’ present topography and the influence of topography on climate. During the next five years, she will use the new grant to conduct field investigation and collect rock samples from the mountain range, which stretches from Canada into central New Mexico. She also will develop a camp for local high school students traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but who are interested in STEM fields.

“NSF CAREER grant recipients like Dr. Fan are held in esteem for their dedication to research excellence in the lab combined with a desire to advance science education in the community,” said James Grover, interim dean of the UT Arlington College of Science . “Her research will help us to learn more about how the Earth’s surface has been shaped. By involving young people, Dr. Fan also will expose future scientists to the preparation they need to pursue this field of study.”

While mountains are usually formed at continental margins, the Rockies, the world’s longest intracontinental mountain belt, are inside of the continent far away from the continental margin.

“On the global level, we know for example, that the Andes were formed on the west coast of South America, where the Nazca oceanic plate was subducted under the South America continental plate; and, the Himalayas were formed at plate boundary where India collided with Asia,” said Fan. “With the Rockies, we want to understand the mechanics of plate tectonics that caused this type of intracontinental mountain belt on earth.”

Fan’s CAREER proposal outlined two new research components to examining the topographic evolution of the Rocky Mountains. One method will involve exploring the hydrogen isotope composition of volcanic glass. The second will look into the ancient surface temperature that is recorded in carbonate minerals.

In addition to Colorado, fieldwork will take place in Montana, North and South Dakota, and Kansas, in order to infer the elevation of the Rockies relative to the Great Plains. Rock samples also will be collected in eastern Texas, which will serve as a sea-level reference site to infer the height of the Great Plains with respect to sea level.

Fan and a doctoral student will bring the rock samples back to a lab at UT Arlington. In addition to answering questions about the topography of the Rockies, they will look at how the change of topography influenced the regional climate.  

“We know the region was warm and humid about 50 million years ago,” Fan said. “Now, it’s semi-arid. Local uplift and global cooling may both have influenced local climate, but we are not clear which one played the dominant role. ”

During the upcoming summers, a geo-camp will be offered to about 100 area high school students typically underrepresented in the sciences.

“STEM fields lack underrepresented minority students, and one of the reasons is that many students just don’t know what geologists do and what kinds of work they can find when they earn a science degree,” Fan said. “We want to see this research impact society. The camp will hopefully fuel student interest in the geosciences and help the students learn more regarding this branch of science.”

Twenty teenagers will be recruited initially and brought into the field to observe scientists. They also will be introduced to lab equipment, research activities and career outlooks of geoscientists. At the conclusion of the camp, one student will be selected to participate in Fan’s project the following year.

Previous research by Fan on the Rocky Mountains earned an NSF grant in 2011 when she joined UT Arlington. Funding from the National Science Foundation (grant number 1454802 ) supports Fan’s current work.

About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 48,000 students around the world and the second largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UT Arlington as the seventh fastest-growing public research university in 2013. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT Arlington fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. Visit  www.uta.edu  to learn more, and find UT Arlington rankings and recognition at  www.uta.edu/uta/about/rankings.php .

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