Researcher reaches new depths

Work on formation of continents earns Rice geochemist two honors

Rice News staff

Cin-Ty Lee’s life is full of rewards and, these days, full of awards.

The Rice University geochemist spent a recent morning talking to fourth-graders at Roberts Elementary School, a neighbor of Rice and part of the Houston Independent School District. This seems like a generous expenditure of time for a busy guy who just won two of his field’s most prestigious honors.

But to the young professor, getting students excited about studying their planet is one of the rewards.

“I was kind of nervous at first, because I knew I was going to have to explain things in a simple way, and that’s always a challenge,” said Lee. “But these kids already knew a lot. They knew more than I did when I was a kid. It was pretty impressive.”

Lee learned his lessons well enough to impress the awards committees of both the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Geochemical Society.

Last December, the AGU presented Lee, 34, its first Hisashi Kuno Award for outstanding contributions to volcanology, geochemistry or petrology, based on the quality of his publications.

And this week, Lee was named winner of this year’s F.W. Clarke Medal. The honor given since 1972 goes to an “early career scientist for a single outstanding contribution to geochemistry or cosmochemistry, published either as a single paper or a series of papers on a single topic,” according to the Geochemical Society Web site. The award will be presented at the V.M. Goldschmidt conference in Davos, Switzerland, in June.

“I was surprised because I didn’t think any single paper of mine got that much attention, but it is rewarding to know that at least a few are being read,” said Lee, whose most important works focused on how the Earth’s continents formed and continue to evolve.

The recently tenured associate professor of Earth science’s interests are much deeper — and broader — than that would suggest. In a paper published last month in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Lee and his co-authors, postdoc Peter Luffi, graduate student Heather Dalton, Terry Plank of Columbia University and former Rice professor William Leeman, show it’s possible to determine the thermal states of the planet in various places over time by analyzing magma.

“We’ve come up with a tool to estimate the temperatures and pressures, and therefore the depth, from which magma rises,” he explained. Most material solidifies under compression, but “if you decompress it, it goes to liquid.

“And it doesn’t melt in one go. It’s like a chocolate-chip cookie. As it’s rising, the chocolate may melt first, and then some of the dough, or some of the other goodies you’ve got in there. And they melt too, but not all at the same time or the same temperature or the same pressure.” Ultimately, analyzing the composition of surface magma (“the fraction of chocolate chips that melted”) reveals its origin and history, he said.

“We can do this under continents, under oceans and even for other planets,” he said, noting studies of meteorites thought to have originated on Mars or from asteroids that will help tell their histories as well. He’s currently analyzing komatiites, rare rocks as old as 3 billion years that he hopes will reveal much about Earth’s early history.

When he’s not looking at the ground for rocks, Lee is frequently looking up. Sidetracked in his planned career as an ornithologist, Lee still loves birdwatching and has spent a great deal of time cataloging the species that pass through campus and helping Rice professors Joan Strassmann and David Queller with the Bird Biology Laboratory in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Having arrived at Rice seven years ago after earning his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and his doctorate at Harvard, Lee still feels fortunate to be here.

“There’s a lot of energy here, which I think makes Rice a very unique and welcoming place,” he said. “It’s a great place to actually do something good and, in particular, be creative. There’s nobody here trying to squash your creativity.”




About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.