Faculty Profile: Lindy T. Elkins-Tanton

Geodynamicist and Planetary Scientist

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Lindy Elkins-Tanton
This profile is part of a collection of profiles of faculty members in the geosciences. The collection focuses on faculty whose teaching and research connect to the future of science. This profile was created in 2007.

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What are your teaching responsibilities?

A course of my choice in the fall and the introduction to physical geology course (for majors and nonmajors) in the spring.

How does your teaching relate to traditional geology?

Most of the physical geology course topics are entirely traditional: rock identification, field techniques, history of plate tectonic theory, etc.

How does it take geoscience in new directions? How does it take your department in new directions?

In the introductory course, whenever possible I make the projects and labs interdisciplinary and I include information and techniques from materials science, planetary science, space engineering, and from a wide variety of scientific journals. For example, one of the early topics in this course is rocks and minerals. In the corresponding lab, we go beyond standard identification to interpretation and prediction. Students grapple with questions like how are these rocks related to the bulk composition of the Earth and the process of chemical differentiation? Would you find rocks like these on other planets? What type of planets? (Which rocks would only form on tectonically active planets?)

Later in the course, as we tackle topics like surface processes, internal planetary dynamics, and plate tectonics, students conduct experiments with honey and ball bearings to discover the relationship between temperature and viscosity. This leads to generalizations that apply well beyond traditional areas of geology.

Finally, my fall course (or courses) will be related to one or more of my research projects, all of which are strongly interdisciplinary.


What are your research interests and activities?

The underlying theme that connects all of my research is the question of how geodynamic processes influence petrologic heterogeneity. Most of my projects fall into one of two subcategories:
  1. The formation and early evolution of planets
  2. The geodynamics and petrology of continental magmatism

How does your research relate to traditional geology?

My research uses techniques from traditional geodynamical modeling and from traditional experimental petrology, and I do field work.

How does it take geoscience in new directions?

The work is exceptionally interdisciplinary, particularly the planetary formation work. I collaborate with astrophysicists and atmospheric scientists, and bridge semantic and substantive gaps among the fields that work on planetary formation.

My approach to the study of early planetary evolution is to generate numerical models of a planet just after accretion - using what we know from fluid dynamics, physics, geophysics, geology, and atmospheric science for the governing equations - and then to "watch" it solidify. This allows us to predict the crustal composition, strength of the early magnetic field, isotopic heterogeneity in the mantle, major element mineralogy, and so on. We then compare our models' predictions with data from remote sensing, from meteorites, and from Mars.

Another project I am interested in is studying the connection between the Siberian flood basalt and extinction. I am currently working on a proposal to the Continental Dynamics program at NSF to secure funding for this. The proposal involves 15 Principal Investigators, from 7 different countries, each with a different area of scientific expertise – atmospheric science, petrology, geophysics, and so on. If we're funded, it will be a VERY exciting, very multidisciplinary collaborative enterprise.

How does it take your department in new directions?

Although I am very new in this department, I can already see that I am included in discussions within three of the four major subdisciplines of our department: Planetary, Geology and Geochemistry, and Geophysics. This appears to be creating bridges where they didn't exist before, and strengthening connections that did exist.

Connections Between Teaching & Research

At the moment it is definitely my research that influences my teaching: At every class meeting I try to make the students connect new information to information from other fields that we have already covered. I am constantly bringing in new results from my own and others' research, and showing the students parts of presentations from conferences that friends have let me borrow.