Paola Receives 2016 G. K. Gilbert Award

Christopher Paola will receive the 2016 G. K. Gilbert Award at the 2016 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, to be held 12–16 December in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes “a scientist who has either made a single significant advance or sustained significant contributions to the field of Earth and planetary surface processes, and who has in addition promoted an environment of unselfish cooperation in research and the inclusion of young scientists into the field.”


Prof. Chris Paola merits the G. K. Gilbert Award for his leadership in shepherding a generation of Earth surface process researchers through the maze of complexity, to the beauty of insight via first-order simplification. Prof. Paola is

A researcher of peerless insight and innovation in the field of Earth surface processes;

A leader in defining the underlying commonality between the otherwise disparate fields of geomorphology and stratigraphy;

A visionary in terms of his conception of a) the subsiding experimental facility at St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, University of Minnesota, b) his co-leadership of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System, and c) his leadership of the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics;

An integrator of diverse lines of research and diverse research groups via at least nine review and synthesis papers; and

A freely-giving and deeply dedicated educator of undergraduates, graduate students, and younger researchers in the Earth sciences, regardless of whether or not a given individual is under his direct supervision.

I make a key observation about Prof. Paola’s research philosophy. He is a cracker of hard walnuts who has no nutcracker. In the absence of a nutcracker, one could use a stone, a sledgehammer, or indeed a focused beam of sound to open the nut. The process of doing so may be so destructive that post processing of the bits of shell and nut becomes more challenging than the process of cracking the nut. Prof. Paola, instead, places two walnuts in his hand, squeezes at just the right angle and with just the right pressure, and pops the desired one open, cleanly, with its internal structure readily apparent. It is this ability to abstract problems to their first-order simplicity and elegance that ranks Prof. Paola as peerless.

—Gary Parker, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Urbana


This is an occasion for nothing but the deepest gratitude: to my parents and teachers, to many people along the way, to those who supported me for this award, and especially to Gary for his generous citation. I will return to his kind words shortly.

Three groups of people make our careers: our mentors, the “research apprentices” with whom we work, and our colleagues. When I went to college, I never imagined a career in research, and when I embarked on my career I had no idea how much it would enrich my life. I have been extremely fortunate: in my students and postdocs, who have been as much a part of this work as I have, and who I hope will see this as recognition of what we all did together; and in working for many years with Gary, who has influenced me far more than he realizes. Much of the work mentioned in the citation was inspired by discussions with him, my scientific older brother.

I want also to acknowledge my debt to my friend and long-time collaborator Paul Heller, whom we lost in July. He was one of the most creative and original scientists I have ever met. I owe my involvement with large-scale river and basin dynamics to Paul, who helped me see how grain-scale dynamics could change the way we think about continents.

Finally, I want to highlight the culture of Earth-surface dynamics. I know of no other field that does so well at maintaining high standards of both research and collegiality. Perhaps our positive culture is related to the pleasure of working on something so intrinsically appealing and beautiful. This brings me back to Gary’s citation. His words express a set of ideals that apply across our community. The spirit they represent is something for all of us to cherish, and to join in sustaining. I am very grateful to be part of it.

—Christopher Paola, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis