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Robert van der Hilst named head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

Succeeds Maria Zuber, who led department for the last eight years.
Photo: Marije van der Hilst

Robert van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth Sciences in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), has been named the new head of EAPS, effective Jan. 1, 2012. He succeeds Maria Zuber, the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, who has served as the department head for the last eight years.

Van der Hilst has served as the director of the Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL) since 2004. Integrating research across discipline, department and school boundaries, he transformed ERL into MIT’s primary home for research and education focused on sub-surface energy resources. As department head, van der Hilst aims to foster further collaboration between the EAPS community and groups elsewhere on campus and (through the existing Joint Program) at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).  

“The best part of my job will be to work with fantastic faculty, research staff and students to find new ways to address exciting questions about the Earth and other planets in and beyond our solar system,” says van der Hilst. “EAPS is an amazingly diverse department, as it combines the elements of the School of Science in a natural way, and it is immensely gratifying that our exciting discoveries and fundamental research address directly some of the key societal interests of our time: natural resources, climate, environment, natural disasters and the possibility of life elsewhere in space.”  

“Rob is a distinguished seismologist, who has done a great job leading the Earth Resources Laboratory and connecting it to the MIT Energy Initiative,” said Marc Kastner, dean of the School of Science. “I am sure he will help the department make even greater contributions to President Susan Hockfield's initiative on Energy and the Environment.”

Van der Hilst’s research focuses on the understanding of Earth’s deep interior structure and its evolution over long periods of geological time. With his students and collaborators, he has developed seismic imaging methods to explore Earth’s interior from sedimentary basins and hydrocarbons near its surface all the way down to the core-mantle boundary some 2,800 kilometers under the surface. Van der Hilst’s seismic imaging helps unravel the hidden mysteries of our planet, deepening our understanding of such diverse phenomena as how tectonic plates move, how volcanic islands form, and why some areas of the Earth’s surface are stable and others are hot-spots for seismic and geothermal activity.  

He has won several awards, including the VICI Innovative Research Award from the Dutch National Science Foundation, a Packard Fellowship and the American Geophysical Union’s James B. Macelwane Medal; he also holds a visiting professorship at the Institut de Physique du Globe in Paris (France). He received his bachelor’s (1982), master’s (1986) and PhD from Utrecht University, and he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Leeds (U.K.), and research fellow at the Australian National University, before joining the MIT faculty in 1996.   

Zuber is stepping down as department head in order to lead the GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory) project, which launched two satellites in September in order to precisely map the moon’s gravitational field and to answer fundamental questions about the moon’s composition, structure and formation.

“Maria Zuber has been extraordinarily successful in recruiting and mentoring excellent faculty members,” Kastner said. “In particular, her record in recruiting women to EAPS is truly outstanding. She has done all this while leading a path-breaking NASA mission to measure the gravity of the moon, serving on countless committees for MIT and the broader scientific community, and launching a successful resource development program to increase the ability of the department to meet its goals. Maria's commitment to MIT is deeply appreciated. We wish her great success in the GRAIL project, which will give us new understanding of how the Earth and other planets formed.”

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