Geology and geophysics professor Noah Planavsky has been awarded a 2016 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering. This prestigious grant, which carries nearly $1 million, will fund his research on understanding how life in Earth’s oceans has changed throughout the planet’s history.
Sponsored by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Packard Fellowships are among the nation’s largest nongovernmental fellowships available to early-career researchers in the natural and physical sciences and in engineering. The Packard Foundation invites the presidents of 50 universities nationwide to nominate two faculty members for consideration every year.
Planavsky is among 18 awardees who will receive individual grants of $875,000 distributed over five years. The foundation announced this year’s fellowship recipients on Oct. 14.
“[Planavsky] is tackling some of the most fundamental questions in the geosciences,” said Geology and Geophysics Department chair Jay Ague. “He is at the forefront in understanding how the oxygen content of Earth’s atmosphere has varied over the last several billion years and in exploring the relationships between atmospheric oxygen and the evolution of multicellular life.”
Planavsky leads the Yale Metal Geochemistry Center, where he studies changes in the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere — in particular, the history and effects of Earth’s oxygenation. Planavsky said that his research encompasses a wide range of time scales, from very recent changes to changes that occur over billions of years.
For the Packard Fellowship, Planavsky’s specific goal will be to develop a new set of analytical tools to track marine productivity and to investigate how life in Earth’s oceans has changed, over both short and long time scales. Marine productivity refers to the rate at which new life is generated in ocean ecosystems.
Planavsky added that he hopes to explore how the isotopes of two bioessential metals, cadmium and zinc, can be used to track changes in the ocean’s composition and amount of algae and photosynthesizing bacteria known as cyanobacteria. This, in turn, will lead to new insights into how the planet’s atmosphere has changed over time, he said.
“A big driving question we’re interested in is how life and the environment have coevolved throughout history,” Planavsky said. “We’re also interested in figuring out how past climate perturbations occurred, which can help us better understand what we might expect in the future.”
Twenty-three Yale professors and affiliates have received a Packard Fellowship since the fellowship program was first established in 1988. Among the current faculty of the Yale Department of Geology and Geophysics, Planavsky is the third to receive the honor.
According to the foundation’s website, Packard Fellowships are characterized by “few funding restrictions and limited reporting requirements,” which provide awardees with maximum flexibility in their research pursuits. Packard Fellows are required to submit yearly research progress updates and financial reports for the duration of the fellowship, and they are invited to present their research at the annual Packard Fellows Meeting, which is held each fall in Monterey, California.
“One of the goals of the fellowship is that it’s a significant amount of funding without really any restrictions,” Planavsky said. “The idea is to have a large amount of freedom to pursue novel ideas, to pursue ideas that are a bit more risky, to really go after anything you can dream up without many of the inconveniences associated with federal funding.”
Geology and geophysics professor David Evans ’92, the head of Berkeley College and a 2002 Packard Fellow, added that the fellowship is unique in that it tends to fund “researchers who cross disciplines or methods,” thus providing resources for research ideas that may not be supported by standard federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation.
Evans, a close colleague of Planavsky, said he used his own Packard Fellowship funding to kick-start his laboratory, the Yale Paleomagnetic Facility. He also used his award money to assemble a collection of crustal rock samples from around the world, in order to study the evolution of the Earth’s plate tectonics and planetary magnetic field, he said.
The Packard Foundation was established in 1964 by Lucile and David Packard, the co-founder of the leading information technology company Hewlett-Packard.