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October 19, 1998

UCSC geologist receives $625,000 Packard Fellowship

By Tim Stephens

For the fifth consecutive year, a UCSC researcher has garnered one of the nation's most prestigious honors for young faculty members: a David and Lucile Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, worth a total of $625,000.

Lisa Sloan will receive $625,000 over a five-year period.

Geologist and paleoclimatologist Lisa Sloan, an assistant professor of earth sciences, will receive $125,000 per year for the next five years to support her pioneering research on global and regional climate change. She is among 24 scientists and engineers chosen this year by the Packard Foundation for their exceptional promise and creative research.

UCSC is one of only four institutions that have earned at least one Packard Fellowship in each of the past five years. The others are the California Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, and UC San Francisco.

Sloan, 38, joined the UCSC faculty in 1995. She has several ongoing research projects aimed at understanding the causes and effects of climate change. Her work combines studies of past climates based on geologic evidence with computer modeling of Earth's climatic systems. Research on past climates can shed light on current and future climatic and environmental change, Sloan said.

"The geologic record reveals a rich and varied history of constantly changing climate, with conditions shifting between extremes of warmth and cold," Sloan said. "Climate change is certain, but how and why it changes is a complex matter."

Much of her work has focused on unusually warm intervals in Earth's history, such as the period from 37 to 55 million years ago when crocodiles lived within the Arctic Circle and palm trees grew in what is now Wyoming. To explain how the Earth achieved and sustained such warm temperatures, Sloan analyzes the interactions of a broad range of factors, including ocean circulation, atmospheric and surface processes, greenhouse gases, and living organisms.

Sloan has also begun to examine climate change on a regional scale, currently focusing on the Aral Sea region of Central Asia. In 1960, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest inland water body on Earth, but diversion of water for irrigation has diminished its surface area by half, reduced its volume by 75 percent, and tripled its salinity, Sloan said. This ongoing ecological disaster has resulted in a harsher climate and shortened growing season in some areas near the sea. Sloan's group is using the drying up of the Aral Sea to test the predictive accuracy of regional-scale climate models.

"Regional applications are of great interest for future projections of the impacts of human activities," said Thorne Lay, chair of UCSC's Earth Sciences Department.

Lay noted that Sloan is a leading architect of a new California climate research initiative involving several departments at UCSC. The initiative will examine the effects of regional and global conditions, including global warming, on the climate and agricultural environment of California.

Sloan earned her B.S. in geology from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, her M.S. in geology from Kent State University, and her Ph.D. in geosciences from Pennsylvania State University. Before joining the earth sciences faculty, Sloan held appointments as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan and then as a research scientist in UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences.

Sloan said it will take some time to plan how best to spend her new research funds, but upgrading her computers and hiring new postdoctoral researchers are high on her list of priorities.

"Clearly this is an exciting opportunity for me to pursue my research interests and ideas with unprecedented support, and I intend to make the most of this opportunity," Sloan said.

The Packard Fellowship program, established in 1988, is intended to provide support for unusually creative science and engineering researchers early in their careers, allowing them to pursue their research with few funding restrictions and limited paperwork requirements. Every year, the Packard Foundation invites 50 universities to nominate two young faculty members for the fellowships.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, based in Los Altos, is a private family foundation created in 1964 by David Packard and Lucile Salter Packard. The Packard Foundation awards grants to nonprofit organizations in several broad program areas, including science, population, conservation, and children, family, and community.

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