2020 Young Scientist Award (Donath Medal)

Presented to Christopher Spencer

Christopher Spencer

Christopher Spencer
Queen’s University


Citation by Brendan Murphy, St. Francis Xavier University

Christopher Spencer is a renaissance-style tectonochemist, harnessing the disciplines of petrology, geochemistry, geochronology, stratigraphy and geodynamics to make fundamental contributions to our understanding of secular changes in tectonic processes. Chris obtained his BSc (2009) and MSc (2011) from Brigham Young University, Utah. His PhD (University of Saint Andrews, U.K., 2014), supervised by Peter Cawood, Chris Hawkesworth and Tony Prave, was followed by a post-doc with NERC (UK), and a Research Fellowship at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. He is now a newly-minted Assistant Professor at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.

His research is rooted in field work, which has taken him to all corners of the globe. He can swap his field boots for a lab coat where he subjects his favorite rock samples to all manners of torture to tease out their geochemical and isotopic secrets. The outcomes of this dual approach are clear from his CV, which also indicates extraordinary versatility and productivity (the last time I counted, nearly 70 peer-reviewed articles, about half of them as first author). His publications vary from detailed local to global tectonic studies, from Archean to Cenozoic in age, on topics (to list a few) as diverse as evolution and preservation of continental crust, onset and modulation of the supercontinent cycle, the Paleoproterozoic tectono-magmatic “lull”, the role of the mantle convection in Grenvillian, Gondwanan and Cordilleran orogenesis, and late- to post-orogenic processes, such as exhumation of metamorphic complexes, basin formation and bimodal magmatism. Keeping on top of the literature on these topics is a remarkable feat in itself, but making fundamental contributions to them all is an amazing achievement, and one which clearly merits this prestigious award. What these publications have in common is an ability to see the connections between seemingly diverse or enigmatic phenomena, fundamental insights into important tectonic processes, and how these processes have changed during Earth’s evolution. Collectively, these publications attest to an uncommon ability to identify fundamental gaps in our understanding, as well as a research methodology designed to distinguish between rival hypotheses, and thought-provoking testable models that provide innovative and provocative insights.

Another common denominator is an eagerness to collaborate with geoscientists from a wide range of cognate disciplines. From experience, I know these collaborations are typically initiated with by seemingly innocuous, impromptu early morning discussions, initially between 2 or 3 people, but mysteriously expanding in numbers as the morning gives way to afternoon. While some of us might need multiple shots of caffeine as mental fuel, Chris would have already had a three hour head start, doing his early morning chores on “the farm”, like a mental athlete limbering up for the upcoming race, fueled by an inexhaustible supply of mental adrenaline. As these discussions evolve and metamorphose, global databases whizz in and out of his cell phone as he relentlessly fact-checks any arm-waving statements that us old buzzards are used to routinely getting away with! One raised eyebrow is enough to demonstrate that no fake news survives more than 30 seconds! The typical outcome of these discussions is some new research direction and a strategy as to how our collective goals might be accomplished. Longer-term outcomes include insightful papers, many of which he is is the clear intellectual leader, that include graduate students, early career researchers, lots of admiring colleagues and he even takes time to share his wisdom with some of the old buzzards!

The future is equally exciting. Much of Chris’s current research investigates the potential connections and shared evolution of processes occurring in the deep Earth with those in the biosphere and atmosphere. He is particularly intrigued by transition between the Archean to Proterozoic eons (2.5 billion years ago), a time interval characterized by dramatic changes in geodynamic processes, rapid development of continental freeboard, and potentially the first episode of low-latitude glaciation, all of which turn may have profoundly influenced biologic evolution and atmospheric oxygenation. Based on his prodigious track record, we can expect more first-order insights into this pivotal time interval in Earth’s evolution.

Chris is also a geocitizen; he is the founder and editor-in-chief of TravelingGeologist (www.TravelingGeologist.com), a website for the dissemination of Earth Science research to the public that has reached over one million people from over 150 countries. He also has aspirations of being a chicken farmer and if you look like a pheasant and live near Kingston, Ontario, you have every right to feel nervous!


Response by Christopher Spencer

It is hard to overstate how humbled I feel to be awarded the Donath Medal this year. It is with sincere gratitude that I thank the Geological Society of America and the Donath family for endowing this award. I must also express gratitude to the efforts of the awards committee and to my nominator Brendan Murphy and recommenders Kent Condie, Tony Prave, Scott Samson, Damian Nance, and Stephen Johnston.

My love of geology began as a small child as my mother provided a continuous stream of library books and my father taught me to love the mountains. My formal education was shaped by an amazing set of mentors from my high school geology, physics, environmental science, and astronomy teacher Gene Clark who convinced me that life as an oil rig roughneck would not suit me to undergraduate mentors Ron Harris and Jani Radebaugh at Brigham Young University whose instruction and inspiration provided a broad foundation on which my graduate studies could build.

After six years at BYU, my family moved to Scotland where I pursued a PhD at the University of St Andrews under the tutelage of Peter Cawood and Chris Hawkesworth. Peter and Chris were amazing mentors who provided numerous opportunities, invaluable instruction, and were very patient with my American brashness and tendency to “spit the dummy”. I also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Tony Prave whose daily bus ride chats and unfailing willingness to read terrible first drafts provided a pattern of empathy and kindness I can only ever hope to emulate.

After St Andrews, I moved south of the border to Nottinghamshire, where I worked as an isotope apprentice for Dan Condon and Matt Horstwood at the British Geological Survey. I thank Dan and Matt for encouraging me to try something new and to garnering greater respect and understanding for the analytical methods on which our field so depends.

In 2015, my young family moved to Perth, Australia where I took up a research fellowship at Curtin University where my time was greatly benefited through association with Noreen Evans, Phil Bland, and Zheng-Xiang Li.

After five years down under, the time was right to return to Laurentia. Although my transition to Queen’s University was impeded by the pandemic, I am grateful for the patience and comradery I have felt from my colleagues at Queen’s. With the guidance of Vicki Remenda, Peir Puhfal, Dan Layton-Matthews, and Matt Leybourne, I am confident that the future is bright and full of opportunity.

I would like to also thank my long-term colleagues and friends, Nick Roberts, Ross Mitchell, Chris Kirkland, and Carl Hoiland for their encouragement and passionate discussions. None of my efforts would have been possible without the support and longsuffering of my wife, Camille and our two rowdy boys, James and Finn.

Lastly, I’m indebted to my current and past students and TravelingGeologist interns whose new ideas and enthusiasm encourage me both in scientific pursuits and in inspiring the next generation of Earth stewards and scientists.

Thank you again Donath family and GSA for this tremendous honor.

Video Response