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Harvard EPS Professor Jerry Mitrovica Awarded a MacArthur Fellowship

Earth and Planetary Sciences professor Jerry X. Mitrovica was named a MacArthur fellow earlier this week.
Earth and Planetary Sciences professor Jerry X. Mitrovica was named a MacArthur fellow earlier this week. By Courtesy of Jerry X. Mitrovica
By Juliet E. Isselbacher, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Earth and Planetary Sciences professor Jerry X. Mitrovica was one of 26 individuals awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Wednesday.

The MacArthur fellowship is a $625,000 “no-strings-attached” award, granted to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential,” according to the MacArthur Foundation’s site.

Foundation president John G. Palfrey ’94 wrote on the site that this year’s cohort of fellows “give us reason for hope.”

“From addressing the consequences of climate change to furthering our understanding of human behavior this year’s 26 extraordinary MacArthur Fellows demonstrate the power of individual creativity to reframe old problems, spur reflection, create new knowledge, and better the world for everyone,” he wrote.

Mitrovica runs a lab group that studies sea level changes on time scales ranging from seconds to millions of years.

He said his group is most often associated with glacial “fingerprints” — the idea that melting ice sheets do not raise sea levels uniformly, like in a bathtub, but rather create specific spatial patterns.

“We come up with models for how the sea level should vary from place to place,” Mitrovica said. “And that pattern looks nothing like the bathtub. It changes from place to place dramatically. And we provide the community with those patterns.”

Mitrovica said that these patterns can be counterintuitive.

“Some scientists still scratch their heads about it, but where an ice sheet melts, sea levels will actually fall,” he said. “But you're gonna pay the price somewhere, right? The further you get away from the ice sheet, the more of a sea level rise.”

He added that the “locations with the highest sea level rise” will include the east and west coasts of the United States.

Mitrovica said his group personalizes patterns of climate change for communities.

“For many years in sea level research, all people ever did was quote the average,” Mitrovica said. “If you do what you do in the Boston area, you don't really care what the average is. You want to know what what it’s doing in the Boston Harbor.”

Mitrovica said he was “shocked” to receive the award, and looks forward to harnessing it in order to promote equity and inclusion in the sciences.

“I have a great group of graduate students. They’re activists in every way,” he said. “And I think I was going to talk a lot in the next few weeks about what is a way at least to use part of this funding to address equity and diversity issues.”

Sophie L. Coulson, a graduate student working in Mitrovica’s research group, said that the professor has already sought guidance from his mentees on how he can best use the award to improve diversity within the science community.

“We've talked about having high school students work with us in the lab during the summer,” Coulson said. “That's definitely something that we're excited to participate in.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at juliet.isselbacher@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

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