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Major Grant Puts College at Forefront of Research on Earth’s Inner Core

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Bard College at Simon’s Rock physics professor Michael Bergman recently won a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the solidification and deformation of Earth’s inner core. Bergman’s research examines changes in Earth’s iron core and how its evolution relates to phenomena on the surface like earthquakes.

“I’m looking at one of those really big questions: How did this big ball of iron at the center of our planet form and how is it changing?” Bergman explains.

The funding, which runs through 2013, enables Bergman to employ a postdoctoral researcher who will teach at the College, and to create opportunity opportunities for students to contribute to laboratory research in fluid mechanics and materials science.

Students have been an integral part of his research for years, and the NSF grant lets Bergman hire several students to assist in the lab work. In collaborating with Bergman, students have coauthored papers that have been published in scientific journals, worked on complex projects over multiple years, and incorporated the research into their Senior Theses.

Bergman collaborates on experiments with Daniel Lewis, a professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In the lab at Simon’s Rock, Bergman uses furnaces and other equipment to melt, solidify, and deform iron alloys that are similar in composition to the Earth’s core. Then, he take samples to RPI where he and Lewis analyze the alloys using an electron microscope and a technique called backscatter electron diffraction that allows them to examine the texture and orientation of the crystalline structure of the alloy.

In February, Bergman authored a piece in Nature. Bergman’s article offered expert analysis of findings by a group of scientists exploring a theory that the earth’s core is migrating eastward, melting as it goes while solidifying on its western side.

Research at Simon’s Rock

The strength of the sciences at Simon’s Rock is a direct result of the College’s commitment to a faculty that values both research and teaching. Faculty members have successfully navigated the competitive NSF grant process for many years. Grant proposals are reviewed and rated by multiple scientific panels and only 20% receive funding.

Bergman, who began teaching at Simon’s Rock in 1994, has been continually funded by three-year NSF grants for 14 years. His recent success is just one indicator of the scientific community’s recognition of important research being carried out at Simon’s Rock. Other faculty members have received similar funding in recent years. Eric Kramer, also in physics, received an NSF grant in 2008 for his research, which applies physics methodology to biological processes to investigate how trees grow and heal themselves.

External funding, like the NSF grant, helps create opportunities for science students to contribute to advanced laboratory and field-based research. These opportunities have made Simon’s Rock’s students very strong candidates for graduate school programs and careers in research labs.