Dr. Joseph Colgan, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was named one of President Obama's recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.
Colgan's research investigates the origins and evolution of the Basin and Range Province, a vast geologic region that covers much of the Western U.S. and parts of northern Mexico. Colgan integrates various scientific techniques, such as regional structural analysis, high-precision geochronometry, and geologic mapping, in order to learn more about the fault zones and mineral formations that exist in this region.
"Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people." President Obama said. "The impressive accomplishments of today’s awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead."
The Presidential early career awards embody the high priority the Obama Administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the Nation's goals, tackle grand challenges, and contribute to the American economy.
"This is a great honor and something I definitely never expected," Colgan said. "I'm very fortunate to have the support of some great colleagues, both at USGS and elsewhere. I couldn't have done most of this work without them. And, speaking of support, I couldn’t ask for a more supportive family. I know it’s been hard for my mother to keep this news a secret for the past month!"
"Everyone at the USGS is cheering the President's selection of Joseph Colgan for this highest honor!" said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "It is such a stunning affirmation of our deeply held belief that tackling the Nation's foremost issues such as providing new sources of energy and minerals or keeping people safe from natural hazards does not come at the expense of doing world class basic research."
Colgan has spent much of his career studying the origin and evolution of the Basin and Range Province. This area of the United States has a richly varied landscape and some of the most significant mineral deposits in the country.
"For me, the Basin and Range Province is so interesting because of the huge variety in types of rocks and geologic processes," Colgan said. "Also, much of the area is desert, which makes it much easier to study the geology of the region and how it came to be."
Colgan's goal is to figure out how this region came to be and to do that, he focuses mostly on the history of faulting and volcanic activity in the area. The Basin and Range Province, which includes the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah and the Sonoran Desert of California, once looked much different than it does today. Sixty million years ago, California and Utah were much closer together, and the future Great Basin was a high-plateau area that may have resembled parts of the modern-day Andes Mountains in Peru and Chile.
Between about 40 and 20 million years ago, however, intense magmatic activity caused massive volcanic eruptions and delivered a rich endowment of minerals to the earth’s crust. Early settlers were drawn to the region by a silver bonanza, and today the Great Basin is one of the world’s leading gold producers.
Later, around 17 million years ago, the plateau that made up the Basin and Range Province began to destabilize and collapse, leading to the landscape seen today. Research is still ongoing to determine why this collapse occurred.
Colgan's area of expertise has been in the northern Great Basin, where, along with Nevada Bureau of Mines researcher Chris Henry and USGS geologist David John, he has studied both the faulting that formed the Basin and Range Province and the massive volcanic eruptions that took place there during the past 40-20 million years. Numerous very large volcanoes, like the one under Yellowstone National Park today, erupt infrequently but on a massive scale. Material from these eruptions sometimes flowed down ancient river channels from central Nevada all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to providing valuable information on the history of a large portion of the western United States, Colgan's work on the tectonic and volcanic past of the Great Basin has important implications for energy and mineral development. Geothermal energy has significant potential in the West, and some of that comes from water welling up through fault zones like the ones studied by Colgan.
Since the faulting and volcanic activity that Colgan studies was responsible for laying out the Great Basin's mineral wealth, a greater understanding of these processes could help spur better knowledge of the location and quality of mineral formations, especially ones concealed beneath the earth's surface.
"I'm not just interested in rocks for rocks' sake," said Colgan, "I'm far more interested in studying the landscape and why it looks like it does."
Colgan earned his Ph.D. in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University in 2005 and a B.A. in Geology from Carlton College in 1998.
Colgan has a long history with the USGS, starting as an Earth Science Intern with USGS from 1998-1999 before starting his Ph.D. work at Stanford. He returned to USGS as a Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the USGS Mineral Resources Program from 2006-2008 before becoming a USGS research geologist in 2008.
Colgan’s official citation from the Award reads:
Department of Interior/US Geological Survey
For fundamental research toward the understanding of the tectonic origin and magmatic evolution of the Basin and Range Province integrating regional structural analysis, high-precision geochronometry, and geologic mapping in novel ways that can lead to the identification of mineral and energy resources.
The Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers was established by President Clinton in 1996, and are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.
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