Rudnick Receives 2006 N. L. Bowen Award

Roberta Rudnick received the N. L. Bowen Award at the 2006 AGU Fall Meeting. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to volcanology, geochemistry, or petrology.


rudnick_robertaOne sign of a great scientist is that he or she uses fundamental observations in nature or experiments to drive questions and hypotheses on how natural processes work. Roberta satisfies all of these criteria, and more.

Working as a graduate student with Roberta, I came away with a deep appreciation for the value of having data. One example of this philosophy was Roberta’s seminal paper on the average composition of the continental crust, which has stood the test of time. But coming up with an estimate of the composition of a reservoir was really just a step in Roberta’s grander goals of answering the question of how the continents formed. The problem is that this question is too vague to mean anything to the noninitiated, and to the experts, the question is ill-posed because continent formation is so complicated that there seems to be no simple answer. It is in these circumstances where Roberta shines the most.

Roberta has the uncanny ability to see the big picture by synthesizing and distilling seemingly disparate details into a well-organized and clear message. A good example of this is Roberta’s 1995 paper “Making continental crust.” Although this was a review paper, Roberta formulated some of the most important questions or controversies in the field in a concise manner. Most review papers are just summaries of current paradigms, and after 10 years, they stop being cited or are replaced by new review papers. Roberta’s paper, however, continues to be cited, a reflection that much research right now is still driven by the questions that Roberta so elegantly laid out.

Finally, an enviable characteristic of Roberta is that she’s always exploring various tools to answer her questions. She appreciates the need to be interdisciplinary: Witness her various papers with geophysicists on the thermal state of continents and deep lithospheric evolution. She also systematically explores new techniques and new isotopic systems, as exemplified by her contributions to laser ablation ICP-MS, osmium isotopes, and now lithium isotopes, all to address specific issues on continent formation and dynamics. There is thus no doubt that Roberta is one of our great leaders and communicators in the field of geochemistry.

I will end my citation on a more personal note. When I came as a student to work with Roberta, even though I thought I knew a lot, I didn’t really know how to do science. By simply being her apprentice, I learned from Roberta how to be a scientist. Roberta has been and continues to be an inspiration and role model to so many of us. It is thus fitting that she is one of this year’s recipients of the N. L. Bowen Award.

Cin-Ty A. Lee, Rice University, Houston, Tex.


Thank you, Cin-Ty. I am honored and thrilled to have been selected for the N. L. Bowen Award.

Like others, my interest in geology stemmed from an excellent class, this one in high school, which led me to pursue a geology degree at Portland State University. There I met Bill McDonough, and together we pursued master’s degrees with Denny Nelson at Sul Ross State University. The award of a U.S. National Science Foundation graduate fellowship literally opened the world to me, so Bill and I headed Down Under for Ph.D. study.

Our years at the Australian National University were truly golden. With excellent colleagues, unsurpassed analytical equipment, and a cadre of fellow graduate students who were doing exciting research (and really knew how to party) we learned what research science was all about. Ross Taylor, my Ph.D. supervisor, had worked with Scott McLennan on the composition of the upper continental crust and published a model for the crust composition in their famous 1985 book. After solving the upper crust, Ross recognized the uncertainties in the lower crust composition and suggested I work there. So that’s what I did, and have been working on this topic, and the implications of the crust composition for Earth dynamics, ever since.

Following ANU we spent 2 years in Mainz, Germany, with Al Hofmann and his group at the Max Planck Institute. Working closely with Steve Goldstein, I delved into Pb isotopes, and we discovered that the lower crust is not as unradiogenic as supposed, with implications for the Pb paradox, which is still not solved so many years later.

Returning to ANU for a 5-year research fellowship with Ted Ringwood, my research focus moved a little deeper, into the upper mantle. My ANU days culminated in a paper on the composition of the lower crust, with David Fountain, and a new model for the crust’s composition. However, the most important collaboration I had while at ANU was with Bill: the arrival of our son, Patrick, who has been a joy in our lives and keeps us balanced (at least a little).

My time at Harvard, and my move to Maryland in 2000, have also been productive and exciting years. Highlights include mentoring great students (Cin-Ty Lee, Matthias Barth, and Fanzhen Teng) and developing a close collaboration with Gao Shan (Chinese University of Geosciences, Wuhan), with whom I’ve been discovering the extraordinary history of the North China craton. I owe a debt to our chair, Mike Brown, for his vision for our department and who has built an internationally recognized (and very collegial) geochemistry group, putting Maryland on the map.

Finally, Bill McDonough has been my soul mate, cheerleader, mentor, and geochemical sparring partner for more than half my life. My journey has not been alone and would have been very different if our paths had not crossed so many years ago.

Roberta Rudnick, University of Maryland at College Park.