Professor Emeritus Samuel A. Bowring, a longtime MIT professor of geology, died on July 17 at age 65.
Known for his exceptional skill as a field geologist and innovator in uranium-lead isotopic geochronology, Bowring worked to achieve unprecedented analytical precision and accuracy in calibrating the geologic record and reconstructing the co-evolution of life and the solid Earth.
No dates, no rates
A favorite aphorism, “No dates, no rates,” appeared in many of Bowring’s lectures and talks — meaning, to fully understand the past events preserved in the rock record you have to understand their timing. One of his earliest major contributions, which transformed what geologist know about the early evolution of the Earth, was his work in the 1980s on the Acasta gneiss complex, a rock body in northwestern Canada, pushing back the date of the oldest-known rocks to 4.03 billion years. The granitic samples he collected from an outcrop on an island in the remote Acasta River basin turned out to be rare remnants of the Earth’s earliest crust.
“What is more important about the Acasta gneiss complex than its 4.03 billion year age alone is its character, which Sam recognized and documented,” said Paul Hoffman, Harvard University Sturgis Hooper Professor Emeritus of Geology and career-long Bowring collaborator and friend. Hoffman explains that the Acasta rocks, paired with Bowring’s advocacy, fundamentally changed geologists’ understanding of continental formation. Prior to Bowring’s work the prevailing view was that the continents had steadily grown over geologic time. But, with these ancient gneiss samples, Bowring was able to characterize a complex history which predated the moment of their crystallization, which points instead to a process of ongoing crustal “recycling” — where rock near the Earth’s surface, through the mechanisms of plate tectonics, is subsumed and transformed by the mantle’s convective currents. According to Hoffman, “Sam’s fascination with the creation and preservation of continental crust never left him, whether he was at Great Bear Lake, the Grand Canyon, or the High Cascades in Washington State.”
Beyond studying the physical processes which shape the lithosphere, Bowring also sought to understand those which shape the biosphere. His work on sedimentary layers of the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary age determined the timing and rate of the pivotal biological event known as the Cambrian Explosion, beginning nearly 540 million years ago. He was able to establish that the Early Cambrian period which saw the most dramatic burst of evolutionary activity and animal diversity ever known — including the first emergence of chordates, brachiopods, and arthropods — spanned not 10 to 50 million years as was previously-believed, but instead lasted a mere 5 to 6 million years.
Longtime friend and colleague Tim Grove, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT, wrote of the achievement in a citation for the American Geophysical Union when Bowring was awarded the Walter H. Bucher Medal in 2016: “Sam showed that during this brief time interval more phyla than have ever since existed on Earth came into existence. This represents a truly profound and astonishing new discovery about how life evolved on Earth.”
Bowring also established the timing and duration of what has come to be known as “The Great Dying”: the largest of Earth’s five major mass extinctions, which marked the end of the Permian period and saw the elimination of over 96% of marine species and about 70% of species on land. Rocks collected by Bowring and collaborators from sites across China spanning the Permian-Triassic boundary revealed that the ecological collapse happened at breakneck speed — occurring in less than 30,000 years at a rate many times faster than previous estimates — and with little-to-no warning in geological terms.
A world-expert in uranium-lead isotopic dating, by 2002 Bowring began to see what he later termed “the double-edged sword of high-precision geochronology.” As the field experienced rapid advancements in precision, resolution, and quantitative stratigraphic analyses, many new techniques were developing in parallel. He recognized that without calibration and intercalibration of radioisotopic dating methods and quantitative chronostratigraphy, their accuracy and capacity as individual tools for understanding deep time were diminished. In response, he and colleague Doug Erwin conceived the EARTHTIME Initiative, a community-based effort to foster collaboration across the disciplines and eliminate inter-laboratory and inter-technique biases. Bowring’s common refrain to members to “check our egos at the door” reflected his unwavering goal to push the accuracy of geochronology to new levels, and helped the initiative build consensus and develop best practices and protocols. EARTHTIME continues to lead international workshops, expanding beyond topics of calibration and standardization to engage with the broader geoscience community, seeking to understand the rock record in ever more refined and nuanced ways.
“If the art of geochronology is the rendering of dates in their proper geologic context, Sam is our Michelangelo,” former MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) department head and close friend and colleague Tom Jordan said of Bowring. “He has always insisted that knowing what you are dating and why are as important as fixing the date itself; that the precision of absolute dating is most powerful when samples can be placed precisely in section.”
Bowring’s interest in the applications of tracer isotopes to examine Earth systems also extended to their utility in tracking environmental contaminants. His lab has developed methods for not only tracing naturally-occurring sources and establishing natural regional baselines, but also for documenting variations which correlate with anthropogenic inputs associated with urbanization and industrialization.
A dedicated teacher and mentor
Bowring joined the faculty of EAPS at MIT in 1991 where, in addition to fostering the careers of over two dozen graduate students and postdocs, he demonstrated a career-long commitment to advancing undergraduate education. For more than 20 years Bowring served as a first-year and undergraduate advisor, eventually being named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow in 2006 by the Institute program which recognizes faculty for, “exemplary and sustained contributions to the teaching and education of undergraduates at MIT,” and later earning the MIT Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2007. He was also deeply involved in helping to shape curricula, serving on the MIT Committee on Curriculum from 2007 to 2010. He also served as chair of the EAPS Program in Geology and Geochemistry from 1999 until 2002, at which time he became chair of the EAPS Undergraduate Committee, serving until 2015. As a field geologist, he took his keen interest in engaging students to off-campus venues, leading annual trips into the field which were fixtures in the department’s calendar — from western Massachusetts to Yellowstone to the Las Vegas desert.
“Sam was an exceptionally effective and dedicated undergraduate educator, having gone well ‘above and beyond’ for EAPS and our students,” recalls Grove. “He took on more undergraduate teaching than any other member of our department in the last 25 years and was deeply committed to the importance of training undergraduates in the field — providing students with hands-on experience and using real-world geology to inspire and teach fundamentals.”
Bowring also was instrumental in guiding Terrascope, a first-year learning community created jointly by EAPS and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2002. Bowring became associate director of the program in 2006, going on to serve as director from 2008 to 2015. The nationally-recognized program, which has been the subject of several academic papers and has grown to become one of MIT’s largest first-year communities, asks students with diverse research interests to tackle complex, global problems involving sustainability, climate, and the Earth system in a series of team-oriented, student-driven classes. In 2013, Bowring and his coauthors described the innovative curriculum by saying, “Our emphasis is on using a multidisciplinary approach to show that understanding the geosciences … is important to the students' world view, whether they know it or not. We believe it is our responsibility to teach as many students as we can about the Earth system, and in our experience, Terrascope students have a greatly expanded consciousness about the Earth and humans’ effect on it.”
Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Sept. 27, 1953, Bowring was raised in Durham, New Hampshire, where he also later attended the University of New Hampshire. After graduating in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in geology, he went on to study at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, where he earned a master’s in 1980.
At the University of Kansas, Bowring had the opportunity early on to work with PhD advisor Randall Van Schmus on a project in the Northwest Territories of Canada (NWT) — where he was first introduced to collaborator Hoffman — which laid the foundation for both his PhD and continuing studies in the NWT’s Proterozozoic Wopmay orogen after joining the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis (WU) in 1984. It was as an assistant professor at WU that Bowring made his seminal analysis of the Acasta gneiss from the region, along with Ian Williams from the Australian National University.
In addition to being named a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, Bowring, the Robert R. Schrock Emeritus Professor of Geology, was a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and was recognized by the organization with both the Norman L. Bowen Award and Walter H. Bucher Medal. He was also a fellow of both the Geochemical Society and the Geological Society of America.
He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Kristine M. (Fox) Bowring, two stepdaughters, Kelley Kintner and Sara Henrick, as well as his siblings, James Bowring, Joseph Bowring, and Margaret Ann Bowring-Price. At the family’s request, there will be no formal services.
Members of the MIT engineering faculty receive many awards in recognition of their scholarship, service, and overall excellence. Every quarter, the School of Engineering publicly recognizes their achievements by highlighting the honors, prizes, and medals won by faculty working in their academic departments, labs, and centers.
Antione Allanore, of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, won the Elsevier Atlas Award on May 15; he also won third place for best conference proceedings manuscript at the TMS Annual Meeting and Exhibition on March 14.
Dimitri Antoniada, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on April 18.
Martin Bazant, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was named a fellow of the American Physical Society on Oct. 17, 2018.
Sangeeta Bhatia, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of science from the University of London on July 4; she was also awarded the Othmer Gold Medal from the Science History Institute on March 8.
Richard Braatz, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering on Feb. 11.
Tamara Broderick, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, won the Notable Paper Award at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Statistics on April 18.
Fikile Brushett, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, won the Electrochemical Society’s 2019 Supraniam Srinivasan Young Investigator Award on Oct. 9, 2018; he was also named to the annual Talented Twelve list by Chemical Engineering News on Aug. 22, 2017.
Vincent W.S. Chan, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, received the Best Paper Award at the IEEE International Conference on Communications on May 10.
Arup Chakraborty, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, won a Guggenheim Fellowship on March 4, 2018.
Anantha Chandrakasan, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences on April 18.
Kwanghun Chung, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was awarded a Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers on July 10.
Constantinos Daskalakis, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, won the Grace Murray Hopper Award for Outstanding Computer Scientist from the Association of Computing Machinery on May 8.
Jesús del Alamo, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was named a Fellow of the Materials Research Society on May 2.
Elazer R. Edelman, of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, won the Excellence in Mentoring Award from the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center at the Massachusetts General Hospital on June 18.
Karen K. Gleason, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was honored with the John M. Prausnitz Institute AIChE Lecturer Award by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers on April 3.
Bill Green, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, won the R.H. Wilhelm Award in Chemical Reaction Engineering from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers on July 19.
Paula Hammond, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was honored with the Margaret H. Rousseau Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement by a Woman Chemical Engineer from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers on June 1; she also recieved the American Chemical Society Award in Applied Polymer Science on Jan. 8, 2018.
Ruonan Han, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, won the Outstanding Researcher Award from Intel Corporation on April 1.
Song Han, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was named to the annual list of Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review on June 25.
Klavs Jensen, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was honored with the John M. Prausnitz Institute AIChE Lecturer Award by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers on Aug. 21, 2018; he also recognized with the Corning International Prize for Outstanding Work in Continuous Flow Reactors on May 1, 2018.
David R. Karger, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on April 18.
Dina Katabi, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was named a Great Immigrant by the Carnegie Corporation of New York on June 27.
Manolis Kellis, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was honored as a speaker by the Mendel Lectures Committee on May 2.
Jeehwan Kim, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, awarded the Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on May 28.
Heather Kulik, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was awarded a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation on Feb. 7; she won the Journal of Physical Chemistry and PHYS Division Lectureship Award from the Journal of Physical Chemistry and the Physical Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society on July 1; she was honored with the Marion Milligan Mason Award Oct. 26, 2018; she earned the DARPA Young Faculty Award on June 20, 2018; she also won the Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research on Feb. 21, 2018.
Robert Langer, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, won the Dreyfus Prize for Chemistry in Support of Human Health from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation on May 14; he also was named on the 2018 Medicine Maker’s Power List on May 8, 2018; he was also named U.S. Science Envoy on June 18, 2018.
John Lienhard, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, recevied the Edward F. Obert Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on May 28.
Nancy Lynch, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, won TDCP Outstanding Technical Achievement Award from the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers on April 18.
Karthish Manthiram, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, received a Petroleum Research Fund grant from the American Chemical Society on June 28.
Benedetto Marelli, of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, won a Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers on July 10.
Robert T. Morris, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering on Feb. 11.
Heidi Nepf, of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, won the Hunter Rouse Hydraulic Engineering Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers on May 20.
Dava Newman, of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was named co-chair of the Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on April 8.
Kristala Prather, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was elected fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science on Nov. 27, 2018.
Ellen Roche, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, won the Child Health Research Award from the Charles H. Hood Foundation on June 13; she was also awarded a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation on Feb. 20.
Yuriy Román, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, received the Early Career in Catalysis Award from the American Chemical Society Catalysis Science and Technology Division on Feb. 28; he also received the Rutherford Aris Award from the North American Symposium on Chemical Reaction Engineering on March 10.
Julian Shun, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, awarded a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation on Feb. 26.
Hadley Sikes, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was honored with the Best of BIOT award from the ACS Division of Biochemical Technology on Sept. 9, 2018.
Zachary Smith, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was awarded the Doctoral New Investigator Grant from the American Chemical Society, on May 22.
Michael Strano, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, won the Andreas Acrivos Award for Professional Progress in Chemical Engineering from American Institute of Chemical Engineers on July 1.
Greg Stephanopoulos, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was honored with the Gaden Award for Biotechnology and Bioengineering on March 31.
Harry Tuller, of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, received the Thomas Egleston Medal for Distinguished Engineering Achievement from Columbia University on May 3.
Caroline Uhler, of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, won the Simons Investigator Award in the Mathematical Model of Living Systems from Simmons Foundation on June 19.
“MISTI brought me beyond the tourism level of being in Germany,” says MIT junior Tatsuya Daniel. “Through my Global Teaching Labs experience with the University of Regensburg, I was able to be directly immersed in the German education style.” Daniel is a student in the MIT-Germany Program and is one of many to benefit from the growing partnership between the program and the University of Regensburg (UR). MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) creates relationships with universities and other organizations around the world, providing students and faculty with opportunities to broaden their research and education. UR was the first university to create an official collaboration with MIT-Germany, helping the program create a model that has now been adopted by other German university partners.
The original agreement was built on a solid foundation of student experiences, and the renewal continues and expands UR’s unique versions of MISTI’s Global Teaching Labs (GTL) and Global Startup Labs (GSL), as well as opportunities for research.
“The renewal of the partnership with the University of Regensburg is an exciting milestone for the MIT-Germany Program,” says faculty director Markus Buehler. “It will allow MIT students to gain valuable teaching and research experiences and participate in cutting edge research. For example, one of our students has joined their theoretical physics department this summer to work on conducting lattice quantum chromodynamics calculations of hadronic observables. We anticipate that many other MIT students will have the opportunity to live, learn, and work in Bavaria through this partnership.”
GTL has proven to be one of the most popular pieces of the collaboration, giving MIT students the opportunity to learn through teaching. GTL challenges MIT students to synthesize and present what they know, work in a team, and communicate with peers of a different cultural background, all while sharing MIT's unique approach to science and engineering education with high school students around the world.
Daniel speaks highly of his experience as a GTL instructor from both an educational and cultural perspective. “By working with UR professors and students, we were able to identify differences in how students are taught in the U.S. and Germany. This helped our preparation by ensuring that we were able to clarify any points of confusion among the high school students.”
Regensburg’s Entrepreneurship Boot Camp is modeled after MISTI’s successful GSL programs. A small team of MIT graduate and undergraduate students work with UR Professor Christian Wolff to create and deliver a six-week entrepreneurship seminar for students in the UR Media Informatics MSc program.
“This was a wonderful experience for me,” said MIT doctoral candidate Madhav Kumar, who visited UR as a GSL instructor last summer. “Teaching entrepreneurship to students with advanced technical degrees was both challenging and extremely enriching. Our one-on-one brainstorming sessions with UR student groups helped us learn each other’s perspectives much better in this shared entrepreneurial journey."
UR students benefit from participating in the intensive curriculum that ranges from direct exercises to guest speakers “I learned a lot in the GSL,” said UR participant Andrea Fischer. “We not only learned about business, we also trained to speak in front of people and give presentations. And the guest speakers were great — entrepreneurs talking not only about their success, but about their failures as well.”
Another unique feature of the UR partnership is the development of short annual workshops or roundtables on a variety of topics, held at MIT and UR alternately. Past workshops have addressed the latest pedagogical techniques in STEM to select groups of faculty and students. This cultural exchange has proven valuable so far, as participants are able to compare and contrast their experience and best practices.
"We were very surprised to see how diverse and with which original methodical approaches university teaching is done at MIT,” said 2017 workshop attendee Oliver Tempner, professor of chemistry didactics. “I hope that more and more university teachers in Germany will take these student-centered learning approaches into account in their seminars."
This commitment to a student-focused educational experience was also highlighted by participant Arne Dittmer, professor of biology didactics. "I was very impressed by all the activities to improve academic teaching. All the people we met were highly motivated to enhance the culture of teaching and learning at MIT."
New workshop topics are selected each year, and the next session may focus on Regensburg’s deep expertise in physics research. This expansion and strengthening of faculty programs was a critical goal of the renewal.
Another exciting faculty-facing component of the new agreement is the integration of the University of Regensburg/MIT-Germany partnership into the MISTI Global Seed Fund (GSF) program. The inaugural year will provide one award to support the international exchange of faculty and students to jump-start new collaborative projects. The 2019-20 GSF call for proposals is now open for this and the rest of the MISTI funds.
“The creation of a dedicated seed fund is an exciting new piece of our partnership,” says Justin Leahey, MIT-Germany program manager. “It will be a great complement to our workshops and will further strengthen MIT’s ties with the University of Regensburg.”
MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) creates experiential learning opportunities across the globe for MIT students that increase their ability to understand and address real-world problems. MISTI’s Global Seed Funds grant program promotes collaboration between MIT faculty members and their counterparts abroad. A nucleus of international activity at MIT, MISTI is made possible through partnerships with corporations, governments, universities, foundations, and individuals. MISTI is located in the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.