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NSF to Fund Student Fieldwork in Kenya


Hamilton is one of six institutions — the only undergraduate college — to share a $2.7 million National Science Foundation grant to investigate big questions about climate, tectonics, and the evolution of life at a rich location in Kenya.

“I’m so delighted that this research is coming together because it gives Hamilton a chance, and our students a chance, to really work with some of the top [scientists] for this region and these types of questions,” said Assistant Professor of Geosciences Catherine Beck, a principal investigator on the project.

The grant, spread over four years, funds an interdisciplinary project titled The Influence of Climate and Tectonics on Miocene Ecosystems and Faunal Evolution in the East African Rift, Kenya. The allocation includes money for Hamilton students to do on-site research each summer of the project, working with Beck, who leads a team that focuses on earth, climate, and life.

The goal is to understand how climate and tectonics shape the land surface, the environment, the climate, and the ecosystems and how that could have created the primates that became our ancestors.

It’s very unusual for an undergraduate institution to have an opportunity to take part in a research project of this scope and significance, she said. The State University of New York at Stony Brook is the lead institution in the research group, which also includes the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, Rutgers University, and the University of Michigan. The NSF Frontier Research in Earth Sciences grant goes to projects that are too big and too costly for any one directorate of NSF to support.

Beck has worked extensively in the region, and her professional connections helped secure Hamilton’s participation in the research group.

“A longstanding question at the intersection of Earth and Life sciences is what roles, if any, do climate and tectonics play in the evolution of life?” the project synopsis begins. “The East African Rift is among the best places to study the influences of Earth processes on the evolution of mammals.”

Sedimentary rocks are key to unlocking the region’s geologic and climate history, and scientists from the six institutions will couple the geological record with tectonic and climatic models to learn about the paleoclimate and paleoenvironments that record the emergence of our primate ancestors over the last 25 million years.

It’s exciting stuff, especially for undergraduates.

“The goal is to understand how climate and tectonics shape the land surface, the environment, the climate, and the ecosystems and how that could have created the primates that became our ancestors,” Beck explained.

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