Powe awardee researches rocks that formed Earth’s continents billions of years ago
If travel to the center of the Earth were possible, perhaps it would be easy for Suzanne Birner, Ph.D., to solve mysteries about volcanic eruptions and how our planet’s continents were formed. Until then, she investigates material brought to the surface by plate tectonics.
Birner, an assistant professor of geology and earth science at Berea College, is one of 36 junior faculty members from ORAU member institutions to receive the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award. She analyzes rocks from the Earth’s upper mantle once they are exposed along tectonic plate boundaries. Of particular interest are mantle rocks, known as peridotites, as well as mantle-derived lavas formed by the melting of these peridotites at high temperatures deep within the planet. They provide unique insight into the composition and character of the Earth’s vast interior.
Using funding from the Powe Award, she is investigating rocks from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an area with a wide range of rock types. Birner seeks to correlate thermodynamic data with the elemental composition of the samples and find out why the mantle varies widely on the scale of kilometers. With careful analyses, she hopes to learn more about volcanic eruptions, particularly those that formed the Earth’s continents billions of years ago. With better understanding of these processes, scientists can gain insight into the conditions necessary for a habitable planet to evolve.
In 2019, the Powe Awards totaled $180,000. The grant program, initiated in 1991 to advance research and enrich professional growth, has awarded 743 grants totaling more than $3.4 million. Each recipient’s institution matches the ORAU award, thereby helping ORAU facilitate grants worth more than $6.9 million since the program’s beginning.