Dean Graumlich and Deb Kelley's
Dean Graumlich visits Deb Kelley’s lab

When people hear of the College of the Environment, many think that means we are “the College of Environmental Problem Solving.” While, admittedly, we excel at addressing some of the greatest environmental challenges of our day, our research and education programs have a much broader scope. The rigorous and innovative fundamental science that our faculty, staff and students undertake addresses scientific questions that push the frontiers of what we know about life, our planet, and our solar system, and embodies the pure joy of discovery.

Discovery-based research is core to what we do at the College. For example, David Catling, a professor in Earth and Space Sciences, adjunct professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and a member of UW’s interdisciplinary astrobiology program, asks what exactly makes a planet habitable, and compares what we know about the chemical and atmospheric evolution of Earth to the potential for life on other planets.  This line of questioning has led to astounding findings; for example, David and others identified the atmospheric components of our planet 2.7 billion years ago, through the examination of fossil raindrops.

Other researchers study how planets interact with each other. Erika Harnett and Robert Winglee, professors in Earth and Space Sciences, explore the magnetic dynamics among planets and other astral bodies, including the fascinating phenomena of “magnetic flux ropes”, massive three-dimensional structures made up of twisting and interacting magnetic fields and electrical currents. These ropes are responsible for the “northern lights”, and have been found to pump a 650,000 Amp current into the Arctic!

And yet other scientists are deeply engaged in understanding the most extreme corners of our planet. This quarter I had the opportunity to spend some time with Deb Kelley, professor in Oceanography. Deb works in the depths of the ocean, examining how seemingly hostile extremes in temperature, pressure, pH, and other conditions can—and do—support life. We talked about the discoveries that she and others have made, including the amazing “Lost City,” and she shared with me the exhilaration of gathering data at 18,000 feet beneath the surface of the ocean, of collaborating with people from very different scientific fields to understand such complex ecosystems, and how she and her team are mapping the places in the ocean where life might have started.

Fundamental science requires a dedication to questioning assumptions, and often thrives in an environment of rich collaboration. Every day, students, faculty and staff in our college push the boundaries of both disciplines and of knowledge itself. This type of research—pure discovery, pure examination of how our world works, is crucial. Even though we live in thoroughly modern times, we are still quite literally learning how our world works.


Lisa Graumlich
Dean, College of the Environment
Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor