Anthony Golden / Gavel Media

BC Professor Finding Hidden Histories in Geoscience

“This is from a gold mine in California,” Professor Ethan Baxter explains, pointing to a pretty chunk of quartz and mariposite on his desk. “I literally grabbed it off the wall.” The office is replete with rocks of all shapes, sizes, and ages—some even millions of years old. This is to be expected from the Department Chair of Boston College's Earth and Environmental Sciences Department. After thirteen years of program building at Boston University, Baxter became a BC faculty member in July of 2015.

BC has long been discussing further development of the sciences with one core, driving mission in mind: what can science do for society? Baxter sees this as an opportunity to take a hands-on, active role in continuing the university’s progress. During our interview, his teaching abilities shone through as he made his isotopic geochemical research digestible for the average student, explaining the goal of the new Thermal Ionization Mass Spectrometry (TIMS) Lab and Clean Lab facilities.

In view of this growing science community, BC has funded a brand new laboratory that facilitates the research of undergraduate students, graduate students, visiting researchers, and, of course, Baxter and his colleagues. The three-part laboratory features a Clean Lab, an Ultra Clean Lab, and a TIMS Lab. The clean labs serve to rid specimens of any environmental contamination so their chemical composition can be determined in the TIMS lab.

Professor Baxter teaches an Isotope Geochemistry graduate course, where they use the lab to do geochronology and determine the environmental conditions of the Earth throughout history. For undergraduates, he has taught an Earth Materials class in which students begin to unlock the story of rocks.

The lab runs on an open philosophy, meaning that visitors from Virginia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin, New Zealand, and France will be using this lab as well. The collaborative atmosphere of the lab is a benefit to all who work there. “As a scientist,” Baxter says, “I’m happiest when I’m learning”—and the new lab facilitates just that.

As a geochemist, or, more aptly, an Earth historian, Professor Baxter uncovers the histories hidden in rocks. He determines the chemical makeup of a rock, extracts the water from it, and studies what that water has done. The cycling of water on the ocean floor may seem like a far stretch from daily life. However, when water is released from rocks at a subduction zone, it creates volcanoes and triggers fault lines which have caused some of the largest earthquakes and tsunamis in recent history. Hot fluids traveling up from the ocean floor transport and deposit minerals, creating ore deposits of resources that our society depends upon.

As Baxter points out, “So many of the great questions of humanity are geoscience questions.” A particular question that geoscience has the potential to answer is from where on Earth life originated. Black smokers—which are dubbed as such because they are a column of black smoke created by the crystallization of the same hot fluids that make ore deposits and cause earthquakes—have been found to house vibrant ecosystems. These ecosystems could be the microbial origins of life on Earth, as they exist without sunlight, yet survive off of the minerals flowing out from the ocean floor.

Contrary to history, the overlap of science and theology complement each other. Baxter explains that although “science and religion had some rocky relationships” in the past, the two traditionally clashing schools of thought are continuing to spur each other to new breakthroughs.

Many of science’s great developments have happened because “religion helped push science in new, important directions,” Baxter says. Likewise, science has pushed theology to consider new ways of thinking to accommodate an ever-expanding understanding of the world.

This spring, Baxter will continue that important partnership by teaching alongside Theology Professor deLong-Bas in the core renewal course “Building a Habitable Planet—Origins and Evolutions of the Earth.” This course will explore origins of life, evolution, and humanity’s role in the world.

As a new professor carving out his role in the BC community, Professor Baxter looks to the future with “an overwhelming sense of excitement, enthusiasm, and hope for broadening the geoscience department and all sciences in a way unique to BC and its mission.”