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Matthew Hurtgen Receives Prestigious NSF Honor For Young Faculty

National Science Foundation recognizes creative integration of research and education

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May 21, 2010 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University geochemist Matthew Hurtgen has received the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

The minimum CAREER award size is $400,000 for a five-year period.

The CAREER program offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards for new faculty members. The program recognizes and supports early career development of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. CAREER awardees are selected on the basis of creative career-development plans that effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their respective institutions.

Hurtgen is an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He is interested in reconstructing the chemical evolution of Earth's ocean-atmosphere system to better understand the causes and consequences of climate change at various times in Earth's history. The hypothesis that sulfur plays a critical role in regulating the marine carbon cycle drives his research.

Hurtgen and his research group conduct studies of both modern and ancient sedimentary systems. They integrate field observations with a variety of geochemical tools and combine these efforts with simple geochemical models to investigate the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, sulfur, phosphorus, iron and oxygen in sediments as old as 2.7 billion years and as recent as today.

He received a CAREER award for his proposal "The Role of Sulfur in Regulating the Marine Carbon Cycle: Implications for Understanding Oceanic Anoxic Events." The research objective is to investigate the role sulfur plays in regulating the marine carbon cycle in low sulfate oceans of Earth's past. More specifically, he intends to test the hypothesis that given an average background of low marine sulfate concentrations, increasing seawater sulfate levels may have triggered widespread oceanic oxygen deficiency by facilitating enhanced phosphorus recycling and thus higher primary production within marine surface waters. In low sulfate systems, sulfate concentrations strongly influence the efficiency of nutrient recycling and, therefore, primary production by affecting phosphorus availability. Because seawater sulfate concentrations have been low for most of Earth's history, substantial fluctuations in sulfate levels in the past may have played a key role in regulating climate.

This research will be integrated with an education outreach effort developed through the Office of STEM Education Partnerships in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern to develop laboratory activities for high school students, exposing them to the excitement and challenge of doing science.