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Holycross wins NSF CAREER award to research Earth's crust

Megan Holycross, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell Engineering, has received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award for her research into the origins of the Earth’s continental crust.

Megan Holycross, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences.

The award is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Holycross’s funded project, called “Tracing Sulfur in Subducting Slabs with Apatite Oxybarometry,” will examine the hypothesis that “the oxidized signature of arc magmas is due to the transfer of sulfate from metamorphosed oceanic crust on the down-going slab to the overlying arc mantle.” In a 2023 Science paper, Holycross and collaborators showed that one widely-known theory for the oxidized signature of arc magmas is not correct.

With her CAREER award Holycross, who is also a Faculty Fellow of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the Carl Sagan Institute will use “high-pressure experiments to calibrate a new proxy for the oxidation state of subduction-related rocks based on the incorporation and valence state of sulfur in the mineral apatite.” Holycross uses controlled laboratory experiments to develop new geochemical tools to quantify the rates (time) and conditions (temperature, pressure, redox state) of magmatic and metamorphic processes.

“The idea is that if you control all of the variables of the experiment and then you compare the outcome of the experiment to a natural rock you are then able to say something about how that rock formed and its history,” said Holycross, a member of the Cornell faculty since 2020.

The award will allow Holycross to take the next logical steps in her research while at the same time supporting several students.

“I am really excited about expanding the scope of my research and being able to bring new scientists into my lab with this funding,” Holycross said. “This award will provide support for research and mentoring experiences for a postdoctoral associate, a graduate student and two undergraduate students.”

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