From Earth to Mars: Marjorie Chan Named Geological Society of America’s Distinguished International Lecturer

It’s a rare opportunity to be able to share your expertise in an international setting. This is part of what makes the Geological Society of America’s [GSA] Distinguished International Lecturer program such a prized chance at spreading one’s knowledge.

 This opportunity was given to Marjorie Chan, professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah when she was named the GSA’s Distinguished International Lecturer for 2014.

The resulting lecture tour allowed Chan to travel throughout Asia, giving 53 lectures in India, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China and Korea largely over the course of the Spring 2014 semester.

 Chan, who heads the STAR group in the geology department focuses her research on analogous research between geological formations on Earth and their similar counterparts on Mars. This work formed the basis for the two main lectures she gave during her itinerary, “Mars for Earthlings: Using Earth Analogs to Decode the Sedimentary History of Mars,” and “Eolian Explorations: “Dunes, Diagenesis, and Deformation.”

 According to Chan, her interest in analogous research between Earth and Mars sedimentary formations actually came about fairly serendipitously. She had been studying iron concretion deposits in the Utah sandstone for a while when a colleague suggested that they might be similar to the hematite on Mars. From there her research has extended not only to the concretion comparison on both planets, but also to sandstone formations.

 “What we’re seeing is that there are many sedimentary features on the Earth’s surface that also appear to happen on Mars’ surface,” Chan said. “For example there are many sand dunes on Earth and Mars show similar cross-stratification and deformed bedding contortions indicating possible strong ground motion such as earthquakes or meteorite impacts. Even some Martian mineral veins are similar to those on Earth.”

 While it has been difficult to make direct comparisons due to the fact that the rock formations are on an entirely different planet, Chan said they are able to rely on information gathered by NASA missions to help them conduct their research.

 “There a lot of challenges that come with this work because Mars is a long ways a way and we don’t have physical samples, which is the biggest draw back,” Chan said. “By 2020 NASA is hoping to send a sample return mission [to Mars], but in the meantime we have these rovers that are exploring and they can act as robotic geologists. They can’t do everything that a geologist can do, but geologists can tell them what to do from afar and they can capture images and analysis, which is far more than we could accomplish in the past.”

 Professor Victor Baker from the University of Arizona was the first person to be named Distinguished International Lecturer by the GSA in 2013 and was able to travel throughout most of Europe giving lectures. Because of Baker’s focus on Europe during his lecture tour, the GSA encouraged Chan to spend her tour lecturing throughout Asia.

 “They mostly let me choose where I wanted to go and I made most of the arrangements,” Chan said. “I was really excited to go to Asia because I have a Chinese heritage, although I am a third generation American. I can’t speak Chinese, but it was very exciting to be able to travel to the country of my ancestors.”

 Having her lecture series set in Asia did not come without challenges however. Unlike Europe which features many smaller, easily travelled countries, Chan found establishing numerous lectures in the much larger, outspread Asia to be more challenging.

 “It was much harder to do a lot of lectures in a short time period because it would often take just two hours to get from the airport to my hotel in mega-cities of 20 million people, making it very difficult to get around,” Chan said.

 In some cases she was able to speak more in depth and was able to cover more topics in addition to the primary lectures she had prepared. Much of what she was able to expand on depended on the hosting universities, how much time they provided her and what topics they were interested in having her cover, Chan said. She was able to expand on other subjects such as what graduate school was like in the United States and what the process was like to apply, how to give quality presentations, or even additional lectures on geological hot topics.

 “It was one of those unique experiences where you get to do some tourist things and see some of the spectacular sites you’ve heard about, but you also get to see people in their own element and how they function at various universities,” Chan said. “So I think in many ways it was a unique experience of getting to know people on a different level than just being a tourist.”

 Beyond just being able to interact with new colleagues from across the globe over the course of the lecture series, Chan said she was deeply impacted by the experiences of others that she observed during her time traveling across Asia.

“Taking these trips gave me a very different perspective of how fortunate we are in the U.S. In countries like New Zealand and Australia it was a lot like the U.S., but in countries like India it was so crowded that people really only get one opportunity, and if they don’t make it there are a hundred other people waiting in line to take their place. The people there have very strong dreams, so I was really impressed by how heartfelt their dreams were and the aspirations that they wanted to fill,” Chan said. “It really made me realize how fortunate we are here to be able to choose what we want to do and to follow our passions. I think a combination of that freedom of choice and following your passions really is what can make our science stronger than in other countries, in part because the people working in science want to be and they are pursuing their creative desires.”

 Even so, Chan said there were some science facilities she saw that were very impressive as well.

“A lot of countries have resources that we don’t have here,” Chan said. She described laboratories she saw in China where for instance they had two or three brand new, compact, analytical instruments compared to the large singular, 20-year-old one we might have in a lab here. This shows the heavy amount of investment China is pouring into their science programs, Chan said.

The opportunity to travel as the GSA’s International Distinguished Lecturer provided Chan not only the opportunity to share her expertise with others, but also to expand her own knowledge as well.

 “I think that there is a lot that I brought back that I have applied to my classes,” Chan said. “Sometimes it is something as simple as just talking about different [space] missions. Now that I’ve travelled to other countries and heard more about some of the missions that India or China had put together, I’ve actually tried to incorporate those advances into my classes.”

 Even beyond knowledge applicable in the classroom, Chan said that she has been able to apply much of what she learned about the various universities and cultures she visited when looking at communications from international colleagues and even graduate school applicants.

 “Now when I get an application, from say, China, I have a better understanding of what kind of background they have, with some of them coming from universities I’ve now physically visited. So I have a clearer idea of where they’re coming from which I never had before,” Chan said. “I think there’s also this sense of globalization in that there’s so much information that is out there now that we can do a better job of connecting with colleagues than we could in the past. I was really surprised at how well it could work out that I could travel halfway around the world and meet with someone I had never met before and have them take care of me and share ideas.”

 One of the things Chan said she found most rewarding about the trip was the opportunity to act as a bit of a role model for some of the female students at the universities she visited as well. Geology, and the science fields in general, have been a field mostly populated by men for a long time, not only in other countries where gender equity is more problematic, but here in the United States as well.

 “For me, as a woman in a male-dominated science, as it has been for a number of years, I think that some of the women appreciated seeing another female scientist as a role model,” Chan said. “Proof that yes you can have a family and kids and still have a career and balance some of those things. In some countries they don’t necessarily have some of that encouragement or support.”

 For Chan, the idea of international scholarship such as what is provided by the GSA’s international lecture tour is something that is vital to the future success of the science fields, and for the world in general.

 “In order for the Earth to be a sustainable planet, especially in my field where we are studying impacts to the environment, that can only happen through people cooperating and collaborating together,” Chan said. “That concerns resources and how we use them, how they’re developed, how we use technology to make those resource last. So I think the international component of this is extremely important just for the future of the planet.”

 Chan’s plans for the future are hopeful. Much like her happily coincidental foray into analogous, interplanetary research, she hopes that her work as the GSA’s 2014 International Distinguished Lecturer will only open up even more opportunities moving forward.

 “I expect that because of this lectureship, there will continue to be serendipitous surprises that wouldn’t otherwise happen. But because of this global lecture tour and people I met, or because I was able to see the world, I now can pursue other opportunities that I might not have been able to if I had not had that experience,” Chan said. “So I feel all of these global experiences are enriching and they help to shape your character and perspective in a way that changes you, and I think change is good.”

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