Early Career Spotlight

Liz Chamberlain

Tell us about yourself:

I am a U.S. National Science Foundation EAR postdoc in a shared position at Vanderbilt University, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and the Netherlands Centre for Luminescence dating at Wageningen University.

What is your research about?

As a geochronologist and geomorphologist, I study how landscapes change with time. To present, much of my work has focused on coastal sedimentary systems and can be briefly described as "dating deltas".  My most recent work incorporates a strong human component, looking at how people adapt to and persist in highly dynamic landscapes. For example, I just finished a project that uses the geoarchaeological record of the Mississippi Delta to understand how prehistoric people responded to changes in river channel pathways and thus their environment. I am pursuing similar work on coupled human-natural systems in the alluvial valleys of northern coastal Peru.

What excites you about your research?

A big part of my research involves optically stimulated luminescence, or "OSL", dating. This method is relatively young; it has only been around for geologic research since the mid 1980s and has been useful for dating river deposits since the early 2000s. OSL estimates depositional time based on trapped charge that accumulates in mineral grains when they are removed from light, or, buried in the stratigraphic record. It is an ideal method for quantifying change in river and coastal systems because it directly dates the material that is most common in many sedimentary basins: quartz or feldspar grains. In my mind, working with OSL now is like working with radiocarbon must have been in the 1980s. As a research community we are quickly learning and growing, and there seem to be limitless opportunities for development and application. In particular, I am excited about the potential for OSL as a sediment tracer.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

Deltas and coasts are widely recognized as among the most densely inhabited, biodiverse, and economically pivotal places on Earth. These key regions are also experiencing unprecedented change that threatens their future sustainability. This means that research on fundamental science, such as how river channel networks change with time, has immediate applications to delta management that can improve the livelihoods of local residents. For example, my work in the Ganges Brahmaputra Delta will help to inform a water management plan for the densely populated nation of Bangladesh.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

I spent much of my adult life in Louisiana, and lived there for several years before pursuing an education in geoscience. The connection between people and their landscape in southern Louisiana is inescapable; the delta is changing so quickly that people living today can remember a much different coastline. The geography of southern Louisiana is intimately linked to the Mississippi River and its past pathways. These determine the location of major cities, the livelihoods of the people, and also the vulnerability of communities to various coastal and riverine geohazards. I became fascinated with these issues and wanted to work on science problems with immediate relevance to society.

What are you looking to do after you complete your PhD or postdoc?

I am currently on the market for tenure-track faculty positions.

Given unlimited funding and access to resources, what is your dream project that you would pursue?

There is a large need for more luminescence dating to understand river and coastal processes, and many of the domestic and international labs I know are operating at capacity. I would love to establish a new luminescence laboratory in the U.S., and make this tool available to my colleagues and students.

What else do you do?  Any hobbies or interests outside of work?

I am an avid geocacher.

Coring for stratigraphy and age in the Muddy Mississippi.