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Geological Sciences department renamed to include planetary research

The newly named Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences has expanded its expertise in recent years to include extraterrestrial surface processes and atmospheric formation.

In its first meeting of the 2022-23 academic year, Stanford’s Board of Trustees approved the departmental name change from Geological Sciences to Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. The renaming reflects the focus areas of new faculty members who have recently joined the department and their expanded scope of expertise.

Kevin Boyce, chair of the department, said the new name aims to ensure all its researchers feel represented. The department comprises a wide range of subject areas, including paleontology, volcanology, mineralogy, surface sedimentary processes, Earth’s interior, geochemistry, and, increasingly, the application of many of those fields to other planets.

“Even if you’re thinking in terms of goals or solutions, you can’t avoid the need for students to be trained in these basics of how the world works,” Boyce said. “You can’t save the Earth without understanding it.”

The name change is based on feedback from students, staff, faculty, and alumni. Wendy Mao served as a leader during the transition to the Doerr School of Sustainability, which launched Sept. 1, and helped carry out the naming process. She said the survey results were clear and compelling: “Earth and Planetary Sciences was the overwhelming favorite. Across all affiliations there was tremendous support for both a name change and recognition of the value of adding planetary sciences to our name.”

Several faculty whose research spans planetary and terrestrial sciences have joined Stanford in the past six years, including in the new department of Earth and Planetary Sciences as well as in Geophysics and Earth System Science. In the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, Mathieu Lapôtre and Laura Schaefer concentrate on the physics that shape planetary surfaces and atmosphere formation of rocky exoplanets, respectively.

Lapôtre said he is excited about the signal it will send prospective students to have planetary sciences expertise within a school of sustainability.

“I hope this name change educates people about how planetary science is relevant to sustainability questions,” Lapôtre said. He added that work to understand the evolution of neighboring planets can help simulate future scenarios and processes on Earth. “The questions that we ask in planetary science are so exciting, so fundamental, that it will bring a whole new set of students to Stanford who will contribute to the mission of the new school.”

The department serves as a foundational underpinning to the school’s goals of addressing climate and sustainability questions, Boyce said. Many researchers in the Doerr School of Sustainability are focused on present-day solutions – and an understanding of the solid Earth and the processes that shape it is essential to many of those solutions. Planetary sciences help put our understanding of Earth on a stronger footing and in a broader context.

“Plus, when people think about sustainability, I think they’re after the same kind of inspirational feeling they get when they think about space and other planets,” Boyce said.

“We provide this broader envelope of what’s possible: Sustainability tends to focus on the next couple of decades or so, but what’s the actual envelope of how a planet can respond? How has it changed and how could it change?” Boyce said. “To me this isn’t so much a new direction – we’ve always studied the processes of how things work, and this is just expanding the range of some of the variables.”

The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences also hosts many field trips through courses and programs, several of which are open to non-majors. For more information, visit the field learning page and the department website.