Jul 18, 2024  
Rensselaer Catalog 2024-2025 
Rensselaer Catalog 2024-2025

Earth and Environmental Sciences

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Head: Frank S. Spear

Department Home Page: http://www.rpi.edu/dept/ees

In recent decades, the Earth Sciences have undergone major changes, stimulated in part by the reinterpretation of Earth history and improved understanding of the processes that modulate modern and ancient environments. The past 15 years have been especially exciting, as the interconnectedness among all Earth systems — air, water, solid Earth, and the biosphere — has come into sharper focus. Cognizant of these changes (and leading some of them), Rensselaer’s Earth and Environmental Sciences faculty provide instruction in modern Earth Sciences that is both far-reaching and relevant, addressing key topics ranging from environmental contaminants in local waterways, Earth’s long-term climate history, to the conditions on ancient Earth that gave rise to life.

At Rensselaer, students learn about Earth using state-of-the-art geochemical instrumentations. The latest approaches for simulating and understanding Earth processes include high-pressure experimentation, advanced isotopic techniques, and computer modeling. A broad choice of courses is available, ranging from quantitative, computer-oriented aspects of the geosphere to field experience and laboratory-based approaches. The program includes the study of Earth’s component materials, the development of its structures and surface features, and the processes by which these change with time. The program also includes the study of carbon cycling and climatic change on both modern and geologic timescales, the origin, discovery, and protection of Earth’s natural resources, and the co-evolution of the Earth’s biosphere and surface environments.

The Troy area is well situated for field-based studies of problems in hard-rock and surficial geology, as well as ground and surface water science. The department enjoys fruitful relationships with 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 Greek Cyclades, the Alps, and British Columbia.

Research in geophysics includes field studies of the seismology and tectonics of South America, Asia, Indonesia, and the western U.S.  Seismic tomography is used to reveal deep structures of the lithosphere and mountain belts and to constrain the triggering mechanisms of major earthquakes. Seismic, magnetic, geodetic, and gravity methods are used to probe local structures, including ancient faults and hydrologic conduits.

Research on the biogeochemical cycling of key elements in the modern Earth system utilizes a suite of geochemical, isotopic, and molecular characterization techniques. Current studies focus on the role of organic matter in facilitating the redistribution of carbon among terrestrial, oceanic, and atmospheric reservoirs and in regulating ecosystem structure and function. Furthermore, research includes the role that microbes play in cycling mass and energy in modern and ancient ecosystems, and the extent to which extreme environments host a vast diversity of the Earth’s microbiome.

Paleoclimate and Paleoceanography
Ongoing research of past ocean and climate conditions utilize 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.

The field of Astrobiology focuses on the habitability of Earth and other bodies throughout the solar system, how early life got its start on this planet, and the search for life’s biosignatures elsewhere in the Universe. Ongoing research includes modern Earth analogs for potential habitable environments on Mars, Europa and Enceladus; extreme ecosystems including deep-sea vents and terrestrial volcanic fumaroles; and the early Earth conditions that facilitated the chemistry that led to life’s emergence. Experimental, analytical and modeling approaches are applied to elucidate the geologic conditions that impact planetary habitability.

Research Facilities
Students have access to the department’s electron microprobe, 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, scanning electron microscopes, a spectrofluorometer, elemental analyzers, and HPLC as well as three isotope ratio mass spectrometers. Experimental facilities include high-temperature and high-pressure devices that simulate both surface and near-subsurface geologic systems.

Undergraduate Programs

Hands-on research is a critical component of the curriculum in Earth and Environmental Sciences. In consultation with their adviser, each student may 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 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.

Minor in Astrobiology

The School of Science offers a minor in Astrobiology through the Rensselaer Astrobiology Research and Education (RARE) Center. Students pursuing degrees in EES and other relevant programs in SoS are invited to enroll in the ~16-credit minor through courses offered throughout the School.

Accelerated Programs

An accelerated program with an emphasis in geochemistry, geophysics, biogeochemistry, or geobiology 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.

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, the Rensselaer Astrobiology Research and Education (RARE) Center, and the Departments of Biology, Physics, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering. Applicants to degree programs should consult Graduate Admissions for details.

Master’s Programs

The department offers the M.S. degree in Geology. 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.


Chaired Professors

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


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

Associate Professors

Rogers, K. L.—Ph.D. (Washington University); geomicrobiology, astrobiology, and geochemistry.

Schaller, M.—Ph.D. (Rutgers University); geochemistry.

Shelley, J.T.—Ph.D. (Indiana University); analytical chemistry, mass spectrometry.

Assistant Professors

Wagner, S.—Ph.D. (Florida International University); biogeochemistry.

Senior Lecturer

Cadieux, S.—Ph.D. (Indiana University); geological sciences.

Professors Emeriti

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

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.

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


*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.


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