Earth sciences professors Suzanne Baldwin and Paul Fitzgerald are the recipients of an Erskine Fellowship from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. As part of the award, the two will travel to Christchurch, New Zealand, for three months this spring to participate in university life down under.
The pair has a long-time relationship with the University of Canterbury, including scientists from each institution making trips across the globe for research visits, as well as working in Antarctica together. This prestigious fellowship will afford new opportunities. “It’s a real honor to be invited to come to Canterbury on an Erskine fellowship,” says Baldwin.
While on fellowship, Baldwin and Fitzgerald will give lectures to the university and the public on their areas of expertise. They will speak on research they’ve conducted across the globe, including work in Alaska, Papua New Guinea and Antarctica. Because Christchurch, home of the University of Canterbury, is the jumping-off point for the majority of research expeditions to Antarctica, this area is of particular interest to local scientists.
While Fitzgerald and Baldwin often study Earth processes operative on the timescales of millions, or even billions of years, New Zealand offers a refreshing change of pace. The country straddles the Australian- Pacific tectonic plate boundary. The boundary is marked by the active Alpine Fault in the South Island of New Zealand, as evidenced by ongoing mountain building and earthquakes. Volcanic eruptions occur in the North Island”, Baldwin explains. “The active tectonics are in your face, so to speak, and that in and of itself makes it a very dynamic and exciting place to conduct research,” she says.
Baldwin also acknowledges that being in a geologically active location has very real consequences for the local population. “It’s going to be hard, in one sense, to go back to Christchurch because the city has suffered tremendously from the earthquakes that occurred in 2010 and 2011,” she says. “There is a great awareness of the active role that geology and tectonics plays in people’s lives, as well as global phenomena such as climate change.”
The researchers will also be participating in the kickoff year of a new study abroad program, Frontiers Abroad, for SU undergraduates. Fitzgerald and Baldwin, working with SU Abroad and faculty from the University of Canterbury, set up the program in 2013 and 2014. Spring semester 2016 is the first time that SU students will be able to actively participate. Four students will travel to New Zealand to participate in the Frontiers Abroad program. The semester abroad includes a 5-week field camp where students gain hands-on experience with fieldwork at different research sites across the country. Additionally, the students complete a semester at the University of Canterbury where they take classes and do research based on their field studies. Fitzgerald and Baldwin will directly participate at some of the research sites, and during the semester too. “This is a huge step forward for the Earth sciences department because there are very few opportunities for science students to have a semester abroad where they can concentrate on their major courses and engage in research,” Fitzgerald says.
John Angus Erskine, the benefactor whose gift enabled the Erskine fellowship since 1963, has a serendipitous connection to Central New York. Though Erskine lived primarily in New Zealand and attended what is now the University of Canterbury, he also spent a year working at the General Electric plant in Schenectady, N.Y.—just a two-hour drive from Syracuse. It is likewise fitting that Fitzgerald uses a research technique, fission track thermochronology, that was first developed at the same GE plant.
Baldwin and Fitzgerald are excited by the opportunities the Erskine Fellowship will afford them. In addition to bolstering research relationships with University of Canterbury scientists, the fellowship enables the two to spend time focusing on research. “You need to have a research leave to recharge your battery, reinvigorate your mind and engage in discussions with other scientists globally,” Baldwin explains.
Fitzgerald concludes, “I’m looking forward to being able to devote myself to science, working on a variety of research projects including writing a book on low-temperature thermochronology with colleague Marco Malusa from Italy.”