Researcher Brings Billions of Years of Information to UC Merced

From the microbes in the guts of living things to the idea of life elsewhere in the universe, Professor Marilyn Fogel is pondering some of life’s deepest questions.

When and how did life originate on Earth? What does the future hold for our planet? Are we alone in the universe?

“When you go back through time, there are bits and scraps of life everywhere,” Fogel said. “It’s ubiquitous.”

As a geobiologist, Fogel, who joined UC Merced in January, explores these questions and more using the stable isotopes found in carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur and nitrogen, the elements that form the building blocks of all living organisms. She is in the midst of setting up the campus’s first natural abundance stable isotope laboratory, and will run the Environmental Analytics Laboratory, too.

Professor Marilyn Fogel and one of her ecology students.
She came to UC Merced after 35 years at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory, where she was a senior scientist, and joins Professor Jessica Blois in paleoecology and paleoclimate studies, and Professors Asmeret Berhe, Peggy O’Day and others as part of the Earth sciences research roster.

Fogel and Blois, who joined UC Merced last fall, are two more examples of the stellar research team for which the university is rapidly becoming known.

Fogel’s wide variety of research interests, including biogeochemistry, geobiology, marine sciences, astrobiology, paleoecology and paleoclimate and geology encompass the whole natural world and will add to the diverse array of scholarly work being produced at UC Merced.

Her work has earned her a prestigious award this year, too: the 2013 Treibs Award from the Geochemical Society, in recognition of her scientific contributions to organic geochemistry. She is the first woman to receive the award since its inception in 1979. Fogel was elected a geochemical fellow in 2003.

Her research has taken her to some of the Earth’s remotest and most interesting places, including far northern Canada, Belize, Western Australia, India, Norway and the Sargasso Sea. Her research is used here on Earth and in space, including on Mars missions. Working in rocky, desolate Svalbard, Norway, she helped design instruments and methods for finding life on Mars, according to the USA Science Festival website.

Samples in her emerging lab at the Castle Research Facility show just how varied Fogel’s interests are. A fossilized dinosaur bone, egg shells from an emu, a 1.2-billion-year-old rock made of layers and layers of bacteria, plant specimens, wombat bones and a beautiful burgundy rock shot through with silver strands that dates back 4.2 billion years – nearly to the beginning of Earth.

“I’m excited about joining some of the big research projects on campus, like the Critical Zone Observatory in the southern Sierra, along with building smaller collaborations with students and new faculty,” Fogel said.

Machine parts in what will be her second lab, at Castle for now and likely opening in the fall, hint at what that space’s big draw will be – two brand new stable isotope mass spectrometers, one of which can be run by students and used by the larger campus community.

The second one, she said, will be for intensive research she hopes will cross many disciplinary boundaries, from helping colleagues learn more about how cancer cells behave and examining microbes in new ways, to adding to the growing body of information on climate change.

Using the tracers, researchers can look at the smallest parts of anything that is or once was living and can tell just about anything, including where it lived, what it ate and where its ancestors came from.

“We can measure anything and see how it developed and when it entered the geologic record,” Fogel said, “We can take information about the modern environment and apply it to the historic record and infer what happened over a long period of time.

“It’s all part of trying to figure out when life originated on Earth, piece together what happened up to this point, and develop accurate modeling for what’s to come.”

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