GSA Medals & Awards

Young Scientist Award (Donath Medal)

Carmala N. Garzione
Carmala N. Garzione
University of Rochester

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Presented to Carmala N. Garzione

 Citation by Matthew J. Kohn

The Donath Medal was established to honor a young scientist whose original research marks a major advance in the earth sciences. I can think of no more worthy recipient than Carmala Garzione, largely for her pioneering work in paleoaltimetry.

Carmie first attended the University of Maryland, where she received a B.S. in geology, then the University of Arizona, where she received a M.S. and Ph.D. in tectonics, sedimentology, and geochemistry. She was subsequently hired by the University of Rochester, where she is currently an associate professor.

I should mention that I have no particular affiliation with Carmie or her respective institutions. Rather what led me to support her for this award, and ultimately what has guaranteed her place among great geologists, are her contributions in tectonics and paleoaltimetry. Carmie’s talents extend through many fields, including stratigraphy and sedimentology, stable and radiogenic isotope geochemistry, and (what links all these interests) geodynamics and tectonics. She’s also a fearless and talented field geologist. But her innovative research in paleoaltimetry simultaneously framed the isotopic methods by which we now investigate paleoelevations and changed our paradigms of how Earth’s major plateaus have formed.

To provide a bit of background, paleoelevations sensitively monitor bulk lithospheric properties and distinguish geodynamic models of continental deformation. Developing a local paleoelevation history is, however, analytically intensive and requires close attention to geologic detail. Yet, paleoaltimetry offers insight into truly big-picture tectonic processes unavailable to other endeavors.

Carmie recognized the power of paleoaltimetry while still a graduate student. At Arizona, she decided that, rather than working on a “safe” project characterizing sediment source terranes in the Himalaya, she would work on the Thakkhola Graben, an extensional basin that featured heavily in tectonic models of the development of the Tibetan Plateau, but that no one had studied in any detail. Now, there’s a good reason no one had studied Thakkhola. Her Ph.D. advisor, Pete DeCelles, has described it as “one of the harshest places in the Himalaya, situated in officially restricted terrain along the Tibetan border; a windy, cold, [roadless], topographically rugged, oxygen-deficient high desert.” And of course they had zero funding. Not good prospects for a Ph.D. project! Regardless, Carmie wrote several proposals, landed a $20,000 fellowship from the National Security Education Program, and took off for Nepal—for seven months. She spent three strenuous field seasons there and in the process learned to speak Nepali.

I tell this story for two reasons. First, it ultimately led to two landmark papers in tectonics and paleoaltimetry. One showed that the southern margin of the Tibetan Plateau must have been elevated and extending by 10–11 Ma, several million years prior to when the reigning paradigm said it “should” have occurred. This forever changed our view of the geodynamics of the Indo-Asian collision. The second paper documented the elevation dependence of the stable isotope compositions of local waters in the Himalaya and set the standard by which we now evaluate other datasets and models. Other paleoaltimetry contributions notwithstanding, I view Carmie’s Himalayan work as having sparked this research field. It illustrated the power of elevation histories in geodynamics as no previous study had and laid the groundwork for all future paleoelevation studies incorporating stable isotopes. The second reason I tell this story is that it illustrates Carmie’s perseverance and willingness to take risks. These qualities are evident in all her endeavors, not least in the field when scampering across steep and treacherous exposures. Lots of people are smart, but perseverance and risk taking are, I believe, requisite for the finest science.

Up until a couple of years ago, I would have offered Carmie’s Himalayan papers as paleoaltimetry’s exemplar. Now, however, she has surpassed them with a series of articles on the elevation and geodynamic history of the Altiplano plateau in Bolivia. In part employing a novel stable isotope technique, she has shown that the Altiplano rose several kilometers within a few million years, likely the result of abrupt loss of lithospheric mantle. If, as I argue, Carmie’s Himalayan studies forged stable isotopic methods in paleoaltimetry, then her Altiplano work tempered them to superb fineness.

To wrap up, I have to explain that when Carmie first asked me to present the citation here, I threatened her with the fact that I’ve sometimes given introductions in verse, and that I had recently been reading a book on limericks. But I told her not worry because I couldn’t think of a rhyme for “Carmala,” God forbid “Garzione.” Whereupon Carmie demanded a limerick that included her last name. So, with due apologies to, well, everyone …

There was a geologist named Garzione
Whose work in Tibet took her far along.
For the altimetry game
Soon gave her great fame
And now she’s entitled to party-on.

Anyway, I hope I’ve managed to convey some of Carmie’s unique contributions and qualities, and I’m privileged to present to you, as this year’s recipient of the Donath Medal, an outstanding young scientist, Carmala Garzione.

 top 2007 Donath Medal - Response by Carmala N. Garzione

Thank you, Matt, for the kind words and for the humorous (and hopefully not immortal) limerick. I am impressed that you met that challenge and could not resist the opportunity to write a response limerick:

There once was a geologist named Kohn
Who entitled me to party-on.
I invite him here
To grab his own beer
And join in the celebrati-on

On a more serious note, I would first like to thank the Geological Society of America and the Donath family for establishing this award. I feel honored to accept the Donath Medal this year, and yet I feel humbled by the knowledge of some of the amazing work being done by my peers. I insist that a number of other young scientists could be standing up here tonight, and I wish I could share this honor with them.

Looking back to the beginning of my geology career as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, I have to thank Rich Walker and Eirik Krogstad for turning me on to the apparently limitless applications of geochemistry to address regional geologic problems. My experiences at Maryland, working in their lab on a senior thesis project, inspired me to go to graduate school. While I was a Master’s student at the University of Arizona, my advisor, Jon Patchett, helped me learn to think independently and communicate my ideas. I considered stopping at the end of my Master’s to teach high school, and I am grateful to Jon for encouraging me to stay in graduate school. My Ph.D. mentors at Arizona, Peter DeCelles, Jay Quade, David Dettman, and Bob Butler, were role models that I looked to for inspiration. They view regional tectonic questions with a flexibility of mind that enables them to adapt and develop new approaches to answering questions. I thank my mentors and the Geosciences department for cultivating the freedom for students to develop their own Ph.D. projects. I took complete advantage of this and found that the professors and their labs were always available if I was bold enough to ask.

Over the past 7 years since I completed my Ph.D., I have benefited from the support of the University of Rochester and my colleagues and students in Earth and Environmental Sciences. In particular, our department chair, John Tarduno, was encouraging and supportive. Gautam Mitra has helped to keep the student alive in me. I’ve sat in on most of his classes, as he has sat in on mine, and I continue to learn from Gautam. I thank Rochester for offering a stimulating environment in which to both teach and learn. As I’m sure that many of you feel, while students learn from us, they also help strengthen our knowledge and inspire new insights. Last year, I took on my first postdoc at Rochester, Greg Hoke, who has helped to integrate the regional geomorphology with our view of the Andes elevation history. Our collaborative efforts have broadened my view of surface processes and have provided a new source of ideas that I hope will forward our understanding of the Andes.

Matt describes me as fearless and willing to take risks. The truth is that my biggest fear was the risk of squandering my PhD years not doing something that was fun and inspiring. Working in remote central Nepal and southern Tibet on an intriguing question, despite the challenges, ensured that I would enjoy that part of my life. Like many discoveries, I did not set out with the intention of developing a paleoelevation technique, but instead planned to establish a climate record from southern Tibet that could be compared to the Himalayan foreland basin record. However, when I analyzed the first paleosol samples and saw how anomalous their O isotopes were compared to the low-lying foreland, I immediately realized that the Thakkhola graben recorded an elevation signal. I planned my next field season around calibrating the paleoaltimeter by systematically sampling surface waters in the Himalaya, south of the Thakkhola graben. Our more recent work in the Andes was an obvious target for paleoelevation research because I was aware that controversial paleoelevation estimates from fossil leaves suggested the Andean plateau resided at half its height only 10 m.y. ago. The Andes provide a surface uplift history that is tractable, allowing us to better constrain the geodynamic processes that raise mountains.

I thank numerous colleagues, including Matt Kohn, who came up to talk with me about my work in Thakkhola after my very first AGU talk. Matt’s and others’ interest ignited my desire to keep plugging away during my Ph.D. work. I want to thank Peter Molnar, who hosted me as a CIRES fellow at the University of Colorado. Peter’s ability to view the Earth system through the physical interactions between atmosphere, oceans, lithosphere, and asthenosphere has encouraged me to think broadly. I also want to thank David Rowley and Page Chamberlain who have been simultaneously working to establish quantitative stable isotope-based paleoaltimetry techniques. Our lively interactions, both agreements and debates, have stimulated widespread interest in paleoelevation studies.

Lastly, I want to thank my family and friends. Although I was the first in my family to obtain a college degree, my parents always instilled in me the value of education. I am grateful to Damian for love and support early in my career. I am fortunate to have my family, my daughter, Fiona, and my partner, Doug, to celebrate this honor with. My 4 year old daughter tells me that I have a fun job because I get to spend a lot of time outside. I agree with her. I am grateful for the privilege to be able to contribute to our understanding of how the earth works.