MSU earth sciences professor receives excellence award

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A Montana State University professor has been selected by a national science association as the recipient of its excellence award.

Cathy Whitlock, a professor of earth sciences in the College of Letters and Science, was selected for the 2015 Association for Women Geoscientists Professional Excellence Award in the academic/research category. The award recognizes exceptional women who have made distinguished contributions in their professions throughout their careers.

“I am very honored to receive an award that recognizes my research and mentoring contributions in the geosciences,” Whitlock said.

Whitlock has worked with 35 Ph.D. and master’s students throughout her career and about two-thirds of them are women.

“I have had many amazing students over the years, and I have learned as much from them as they have from me,” she said.

Whitlock is nationally and internationally recognized for her scholarly contributions and leadership activities in the field of past climatic and environmental change. She and her students pull sediment cores out of lakes and use them as a storyboard for understanding the past. The pollen and charcoal preserved in the layers of lake sediments offer a rich history of vegetation and fire conditions over thousands of years.  This information is used to study past climate change and its ecological consequences.

By understanding how past climates affected vegetation and fire, scientists can better understand how today’s changing climate will affect current and future ecosystems.

“I started doing this type of research simply because it was fun and fascinating,” Whitlock said. “In the last 20 years, however, research on the past has become hugely relevant for thinking about the impacts of future climate change.

“Each lake that we core is quite different,” Whitlock said. “From the sediments, we can figure out the origin of the lake, how the forests around the lake developed, how frequently fires have occurred and what the climate has been.

“Analyzing the fossils preserved in the layers of sediments is like reading a detective story in which the plot is to solve how and why the ecosystem has changed.  Sometimes change is caused by fire, sometimes by climate and other times by humans,” she added.

Whitlock also enjoys her work because it adds to her appreciation of the outdoors. She said as an avid outdoorswoman, the information she gains from her research enriches her experiences on the trail and helps her understand and interpret landscapes.

In addition to her work as a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, Whitlock is a director and founder of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems. The institute is a community of Montana scholars studying Western landscapes to understand complex ecosystems including their interconnectedness with people and nature.

Whitlock was the recipient of the 2014 Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award. She is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a leading scientific organization that advances science around the world and across all disciplines. Her research has been described in more than 150 scientific papers, and her current research projects extend from Yellowstone and the western U.S. to New Zealand, Tasmania and Patagonia.

Contact: Cathy Whitlock, (406) 994-6910 or

From MSU News Service, October 20, 2015

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