May 28, 2024  
Rensselaer Catalog 2007-2008 
Rensselaer Catalog 2007-2008 [Archived Catalog]

Earth and Environmental Science

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Head: Frank Spear

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Over the past few decades, the earth sciences have undergone major changes. Primarily stimulating these changes have been the reinterpretation of Earth history and processes with regard to plate tectonics, along with the more recent challenges of local, regional, and global environmental problems. Highly cognizant of these changes, Rensselaer’s instruction in modern earth science is wide ranging and offers many courses and opportunities for individual study.

At Rensselaer, students learn about the 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 geological to field experience and geochemical approaches. The program includes the study of the 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. In addition, students may obtain summer employment with oil, geological engineering, or hydrologic consulting companies, or they may participate in a Rensselaer 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.

Hydrogeology and Environmental Geochemistry
Ongoing research includes investigations of organic pollutant transport, dispersion, and degradation in surface and groundwater. Also under way are studies of heavy-metal-contamination histories of local water bodies, development of methods for tracing and predicting contaminant behavior, and the use of stable isotopes as fingerprints and traces of environmental contamination.

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, 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 with dual microinlet, an elemental analyzer, and gas chromatographic sample introduction systems for continuous flow and compound-specific analyses. PCs, Macs, and Unix workstations in the department are linked to the Institute’s computer network.

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 their adviser. Students are encouraged to use the flexibility available to their own advantage. 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 third year and that they have maintained satisfactory grades in their first two years.

Accelerated Programs

An accelerated program with emphasis in geophysics 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

The department has several unique educational opportunities that are detailed below.

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.

Environmental Science Concentration

The environmental science degree program is offered to students with an interest in a broad interdisciplinary degree directed toward understanding and finding solutions for the environmental challenges that face modern civilization. The environmental science degree has a core science requirement of 38 credit hours (10 courses). The student then selects from one of several concentration areas, one of which is geology.

Environmental Studies Program
Building on the unusual strength and breadth of Rensselaer’s synthesis of engineering, science, and the humanities and social sciences, the Environmental Studies Program offers students a unique educational opportunity to develop a truly multidisciplinary approach to environmental studies.

Participating students take a broad range of basic courses in their first two years and then choose one of five majors: economics (with a concentration in a specific area of science), hydrogeology, science, technology, and society (with an environmental focus). To complement their major program, students may earn a wide variety of minors. All the majors in the program offer their own environmental minors, and the Schools of Architecture and Management offer special environmental courses as well. Graduates of the Environmental Studies Program will not be narrow specialists; they will receive the kind of multidisciplinary education that is required to address environmental problems.

Graduate Programs

Research programs leading to the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees are available in geochemistry, geophysics, hydrogeology, and igneous and metamorphic petrology. 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 beeninvolved in the interdisciplinary Origins of Life initiative. Applicants to degree programs must arrange for their Graduate Record Examination (GRE) general test scores to be sent to the department. Those who cannot take the test because of illness, residence overseas, etc., should attach explanations to their applications.

Master’s Programs

The department offers M.S. degrees in geology and hydrogeology and a professional master’s degree in applied groundwater science.

Candidates for the M.S. degrees in geology and hydrogeology 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.

For the professional master’s degree in applied groundwater science, candidates must also complete 30 credit hours of graduate study based on an approved Plan of Study. However, no thesis is required.

Doctoral Programs

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.

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.


Abrajano, T.A.—Ph.D. (Washington University); isotope and environmental geochemistry.

McCaffrey, R.—Ph.D. (University of California, Santa Cruz); tectonics, seismology, geodesy.

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

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

Associate Professor

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

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 Professors

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

Wark, D.A.—Ph.D. (University of Texas, Austin); igneous petrology, volcanology.

Research Scientists

Price, J.—Ph.D. (Oklahoma University); experimental petrology.

Pyle, J.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute); metamorphic petrology, trace element geochemistry.

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

Williams, C.—Ph.D. (University of Arizona); geophysics, tectonics.

* 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 2007 Board of Trustees meeting.

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