May 28, 2024  
Rensselaer Catalog 2016-2017 
Rensselaer Catalog 2016-2017 [Archived Catalog]

Earth and Environmental Sciences

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Head: Frank Spear

Department Home Page:

In recent decades, the Earth Sciences have undergone major changes, stimulated in part by the reinterpretation of Earth history and processes within the context of plate tectonics. The past 15 years have been especially exciting, as new understanding of the interconnectedness among all Earth systems – air, water, and solid Earth – has come into sharper focus. Cognizant of these changes (and leading some of them), Rensselaer’s E&ES faculty provide instruction in modern Earth Sciences that is both far-reaching and relevant, addressing key topics ranging from environmental contaminants in local waterways to the evolution of our planet.

At Rensselaer, students learn about Earth using techniques ranging from seismological and satellite-tracking investigations of crustal motions to state-of-the-art geochemical instruments. The latest techniques for simulating Earth processes include high-pressure experimentation and computer modeling. A broad choice of courses is available, ranging from quantitative, computer-oriented aspects of the geosphere to field experience and geochemical approaches. The program includes the study of Earth’s component materials, the development of its structures and surface features, the processes by which these change with time, and the origin, discovery, and protection of its resources water, fuels, and minerals.

The Troy area is well situated for field-based study of problems in hard-rock and surficial geology, as well as ground and surface water science. The department enjoys fruitful relationships with nearby university, industrial, and government geoscience groups within 10 miles of the campus. All students have access to these resources, as well as to the laboratory and computer facilities of the Institute, which has a strong commitment to education and research in science and engineering.

There are numerous opportunities for students to engage in field-oriented projects, both domestic and international. In addition, students may obtain summer employment with oil, geological engineering, or environmental consulting companies, or they may participate in a faculty member’s field-oriented research project.

Research Innovations and Initiatives

The diverse interests of the Earth and Environmental Science faculty lead to a wide variety of projects that stimulate educational programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Undergraduate students are encouraged to enroll in the Undergraduate Research Program (URP), which involves them in front-line research for credit or pay. Graduate students pursue specialized study in consultation with their faculty advisers, whose research interests are matched on an individual basis.

Geochemistry and Petrology
Ongoing studies in geochemistry include the distribution of trace elements between minerals in metamorphic and igneous systems, the physics and chemistry of fluids transport in the crust and mantle, experimental studies of chemical reactions and transport deep in the Earth, and accessory minerals as geochronometers. The tectonic evolution of mountain belts is being investigated through the examination of metamorphic rocks in diverse regions such as New England, the Adirondacks, the Alps, and British Columbia.

Research in geophysics includes field studies of the seismology and tectonics of Asia, Indonesia, the western U.S., and the southwestern Pacific. Using the Global Positioning System (GPS), plate motions and earthquake strains are monitored and computer models of plate motions and faulting are developed. Seismic tomography is used to reveal deep structures of the lithosphere and mountain belts. Seismic, magnetic, geodetic, and gravity methods are used to probe local structures, including ancient faults and hydrologic conduits.

Environmental Geochemistry
Ongoing research includes investigations of organic and heavy-metal pollutant transport, dispersion, and degradation in natural water systems. Also underway are studies of sediment contamination histories of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs focused on the development of multi-tracer approaches to dating and source characterizations.

Paleoceanography and Micropaleontology
Ongoing research of past ocean and climate conditions utilize micropaleontological, sedimentological, and geochemical techniques. Studies focus on reconstructions of normal climate variability, rapid climate perturbations, mean shifts in global climate state, and sea-level change recorded in the geological record.

Research Facilities
Students have access to the department’s electron microprobe, gamma spectrometer, gas chromatographs, spectrophotometers, differential thermal apparatus, gravimeter, magnetometer, 12-channel seismograph, electrical resistivity equipment, GPS receivers, LA-ICP-MS, mercury analyzer, and seismograph stations. Also available are X-ray diffraction and fluorescence equipment, atomic absorption and optical emission spectrometers, and scanning electron microscopes, as well as two isotope ratio mass spectrometers.

Undergraduate Programs

The undergraduate curricula are flexible so that students may work in interdisciplinary areas while maintaining emphasis in earth and environmental sciences. Students are encouraged to take electives in their field of interest, including some outside the department. These should form a coherent group and be approved by the adviser. The department adviser will consult with each student individually to arrange an optimal program in geology, hydrogeology, geochemistry, geophysics, or environmental geoscience.

Students transferring from other curricula can graduate with their class provided that they enter the department by the beginning of the junior year and that they have maintained satisfactory grades in their first two years.

Accelerated Programs

An accelerated program with emphasis in geophysics or environmental geochemistry is available for students interested in combining a B.S. and an M.S. in geology. Students interested in developing an accelerated course of study in this or another area of geological sciences should consult their advisers.

Special Undergraduate Opportunities

Out-of-Classroom Experience
In consultation with his or her adviser, each hydrogeology student may select and engage in an out-of-classroom experience for up to four hours of course credit. The experience should have intellectual content relevant to the student’s educational or career goals. Envisioned as a summer activity, this experience usually occurs after the sophomore or junior year, although it could also occur during the fall or spring terms. Appropriate experiences might include an individual or group research project (on or off campus), an independent study project, a co-op assignment, a public service internship, or study abroad. A written proposal and a final written report submitted for evaluation to the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department Undergraduate Curriculum Committee is required.

Graduate Programs

Research programs leading to the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees are available in a range of specialties (see below). Interdisciplinary research takes place with other groups, including the Darrin Fresh Water Institute and the Departments of Biology, Physics, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering. Recently the department has been involved in the interdisciplinary Astrobiology initiative. Applicants to degree programs should consult Graduate Admissions for details.

Master’s Programs

The department offers the M.S. degree in Geology and Environmental Science. Candidates must complete 30 hours of graduate study based on an approved Plan of Study. A thesis based on original research is usually submitted. This requirement may be waived at the discretion of the candidate’s adviser. The department also provides supervision of research and curriculum planning for students in the Applied Science Master’s program in areas including contaminant geochemistry and applied geophysics.

Five-Year B.S.-M.S. Program
A five-year B.S.-M.S. program is available for qualified students and in general can be planned in the junior year. Students may receive a B.S. in Geology or Environmental Science and an M.S. in Geology or Applied Science. Qualified undergraduates pursuing a B.S. in another science or engineering discipline may also plan a five-year program leading to an M.S. in Geology or Applied Science.

Doctoral Programs

The department offers the Ph.D. degree in a range of specialties, including geochemistry, geophysics, paleoceanography, and igneous and metamorphic petrology. Candidates for the Ph.D. degree must fulfill the requirements of the Office of Graduate Education. Evidence of success in graduate-level study and research must be shown. There is no language requirement. A dissertation based on original research is required. Ongoing research is described on the department Web page. Applicants are encouraged to discuss current research topics with individual faculty members.

Course Descriptions

Courses directly related to all Earth and Environmental Sciences curricula are described in the Course Description section of this catalog under the department code ERTH.


Institute Professor

Watson, E.B.—Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); experimental geochemistry and petrology.

Chaired Professors

Spear, F.S.—Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles); petrology, geochemistry.

Fox, P.—Ph.D. (Monash University); applied mathematics (Computer Science, Theoretical Physics).


Roecker, S.—Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); geophysics, seismology, and geodesy.

Associate Professor

Bopp, R.F.—Ph.D. (Columbia University); environmental geochemistry.

Assistant Professor

Katz, M.E.—Ph.D. (Rutgers University); paleoceanography and micropaleontology.

Professors Emeriti

Bayly, M.B.—Ph.D. (University of Chicago); structural geology, rheological properties of earth materials.

Friedman, G.M.—Ph.D. (Columbia University); D.Sc. (University of London); sedimentology.

Gaffey, M.J.—Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); planetary science.

Katz, S.—Ph.D. (Columbia University); seismology, geophysics.

LaFleur, R.G.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute); geomorphology, glacial geology, water resources.

Miller, D.S.—Ph.D. (Columbia University); geochemistry, isotope geology, fission track research.

Research Associate Professor

Cherniak, D.—Ph.D. (University at Albany); geochemical kinetics.

Research Scientists

Tailby, Nicholas—Ph.D. (Australian National University); geochemistry, petrology, astrobiology.

Thomas, J.—Ph.D. (Virginia Tech); geochemistry.

Trail, D.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institite); geology. 

* Departmental faculty listings are accurate as of the date generated for inclusion in this catalog. For the most up-to-date listing of faculty positions, including end-of-year promotions, please refer to the Faculty Roster section of this catalog, which is current as of the May 2015 Board of Trustees meeting.

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