HOUSTON -- (Oct. 16, 2017) -- Rice University's Laurence Yeung has made a career of searching for some of Earth's rarest molecules and the stories they tell about the planet's past, present and future. To aid his search, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has awarded Yeung a 2017 Packard Fellowship for Science Engineering.
Packard Fellowships, which include a largely unrestricted five-year research grant of $875,000, are among the most prestigious early career awards for U.S. scientists and engineers. Only 18 are awarded each year.
"My first response was excitement: 'Oh my God. I cannot believe this is happening,' and then I looked at everyone who'd come before and won one of these, and I thought, 'Really? How can I be one of these people?'" said Yeung, assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. "The way I think about it is, 'Congratulations. Now, earn it.'"
Yeung joined Rice in 2015. His research is a mix of physical chemistry, photochemical experimentation, quantum-mechanical theory, atmospheric modeling and more, all aimed at understanding how the atmosphere broadcasts the state of the Earth system in its chemical composition.
"People sometimes call the atmosphere the 'great communicator' because it's the first to respond to any perturbation in Earth systems," Yeung said. "Altering anything from volcanic emissions to biological productivity can result in changes in the atmosphere's makeup and its chemistry."
He said there are many processes scientists still don't understand about the atmosphere's basic workings. For example, they cannot confidently predict how much the atmosphere will warm or cool if it has different amounts of greenhouse gases. They also don't know how the composition of the atmosphere changes as the biosphere responds to global change.
"Understanding these processes and others could help us better understand climate dynamics, the evolution of Earth's surface and even how to search for life on other planets," Yeung said.
His core approach typically revolves around counting exact numbers of extraordinarily rare molecules that contain two or more rare isotopes, atoms of the same element that differ only in their mass. Fundamental processes -- like photosynthesis in plants or ozone chemistry in the atmosphere -- change the odds that "clumped" isotopes will be created. For each process, the odds change in a characteristic way, which means clumped isotopes can serve as calling cards for specific processes.
However, sifting through millions of molecules to find a handful of these ultrarare clumped isotopes is not uncommon. "The measurements we do are incredibly hard," Yeung said. "It takes big, heavy instruments to measure a small number of samples extremely carefully."
He said the Packard Fellowship will allow him to take research risks he couldn't otherwise afford. Some of these risks involve finding new archives for ancient atmospheric properties, while others entail discovering new ways to detect the imprints of life in a variety of environments.
"Basically, every one of these ideas is risky," he said. "In some cases, you're not sure about the math or the model that you've put together. There could also be questions about your samples. And even if you get all of that right, your instruments might not be good enough to resolve the detail that's necessary."
One project he's considering is attempting to create a compact device that makes isotopic measurements far more accessible.
"It's unlikely that this device will be able to make measurements with the same precision that we do in the lab today, but if the precision were good enough, and we could go places -- a boat, a mountaintop, a drone -- and collect tenfold or hundredfold more data, it would be transformative.
"At the end of five years, I'd like to see that some of the risks paid off and some didn't," he said. "If they all pay off, then you're not taking enough chances and pushing to stay right there at the edge of what's possible."
Other Rice faculty who have been named Packard Fellows include Cin-Ty Lee and Rajdeep Dasgupta, also of the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, and Doug Natelson and Tom Killian, both of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Since the Packard Fellows program was begun in 1988, the Packard Foundation has awarded $394 million to support 577 scientists and engineers from 54 top universities. Packard Fellows have gone on to receive awards and honors that include the Nobel Prize in Physics, the Fields Medal, the Alan T. Waterman Award, MacArthur Fellowships and election to the National Academies.
High-resolution IMAGES are available for download at:
CAPTION: Laurence Yeung (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)
Related stories from Rice:
Earth scientist Laurence Yeung wins Clarke Award -- Feb. 29, 2016
Oxygen atmosphere recipe = tectonics + continents + life -- May 16, 2016
Study: Photosynthesis has unique isotopic signature -- April 23, 2015
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