While much of Assistant Professor of Geochemistry Sujoy Mukhopadhyay’s work might seem rather esoteric—he uses noble gasses as geochemical tracers to study the Earth’s processes and history—his research findings may help scientists understand everything from global warming to desertification in Africa.
Colleagues say that Mukhopadhyay is not the type to focus on one specific interest or area of research. Instead, he uses noble gasses—a group of inert, unreactive elements—as a tool to study a variety of geologic processes.
“If he was just doing what he has been doing in any one of [the research fields] individually, he’d still be widely respected,” says Robert Ackert, an Earth and Planetary Sciences research associate. “I think his strength is that he does a number of things very well.”
As a student, Mukhopadhyay says he loved studying chemistry but was wary of becoming a pure chemist. Yet, because his father had been a field geologist in India, he did not want to study geology either. “Marrying chemistry to understanding the earth,” he says, provided the perfect fit and allowed him to reconcile his interests.
Mukhopadhyay says he remembers his interest in noble gas geochemistry being piqued as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. An advisor was using the interplanetary dust particles that have been settling on the Earth’s surface throughout its history as a way to reconstruct past variations in climate. They found that helium-3—a rare noble gas isotope that is extremely depleted on Earth—proved to be a good tracer for the dust particles.
“If you imagine material from space is raining down at a constant rate, and you measure the amount, you can basically figure out time,” he says.
Today, Mukhopadhyay says he spends half his time trying to understand processes deep in the Earth’s interior and the other half understanding surface processes. The two, he says, are intimately connected, although perhaps not on a human time scale.
In one recent research project, Mukhopadhyay used noble gas concentrations in ocean coral off the coast of Africa as a way of tracking how dust emission rates have changed in response to climate variation. Because the drying of the Northern African Sahel region has caused widespread famine in recent decades, Mukhopadhyay says his research may be useful in understanding how further climate change will affect the region in the future.
In addition to being an incisive and broad-ranging researcher, Mukhopadhyay also teaches Earth and Planetary Sciences 7, the department’s introductory course on geological sciences. Several students who have taken his courses praised his enthusiasm and sense of humor, his accessibility, and his dedication to teaching.
He has twice led undergraduate research field trips to Hawaii, and he has traveled to Antarctica for field studies as well—a “magical” experience that he says helped him understand the impact of melting ice sheets on rising sea levels and increased ocean temperatures.
While Mukhopadhyay is not yet a tenured professor, he says that he plans on staying at Harvard for at least the next few years, and that he truly enjoys interacting with students in addition to teaching and working in his lab.
“I feel I’m contributing to generating a more informed citizenry. But on a more personal level, I find it very satisfying when you explain something to students, and all of a sudden a light bulb goes off,” Mukhopadhyay says. “What I’ve been doing has been a lot of fun.”