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Professor Rich Pancost

Biography

In 1992, I obtained my B.S. degree in Geology (with high honors) from Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, USA) and began my Ph.D. research with Dr. Katherine Freeman at the Pennsylvania State University. There, I conducted research on environmental and physiological controls on the carbon isotopic composition of free and bound biomarker compounds in modern surface-water samples of the Peru upwelling region and ancient sediments of the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway (Cenomanian-Turonian boundary) and Taconic foreland basin (Late Ordovician). The common theme of these diverse studies was the development and application of compound-specific carbon isotope analysis as a tool to reconstruct ancient changes in p2 and organic matter inputs to sedimentary basins. As a research assistant I either conducted or assisted with similar studies on waters from the equatorial Pacific and Sargasso Sea and sediments from the Congo Basin (Jurassic) and German Kellwasser horizons (end-Devonian OAE).

Upon completion of my Ph.D. in 1998, I accepted a post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. J. S. Sinninghe Damsté at the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, where I was responsible for the maintenance and utilization of mass spectrometry instrumentation. Research conducted by myself in this capacity included examinations of chemically unique kerogens associated with the Kimmeridge Clay Formation and the use of carbon isotopes as tracers of microbial processes, specifically the anaerobic oxidation of methane by a consortia of archaea and sulphate-reducing bacteria in marine sediments. In addition, I served as an advisor on Ph.D. projects that involved extensive isotopic analyses, including investigations of Tethyan palaeoceanography during the Cenomanian-Turonian OAE and controls on the isotopic composition of biomarkers in Kyllaren fjord sediments.

In 2000 I became a Lecturer in Biogeochemistry in the Organic Geochemistry Unit of the School of Chemistry, University of Bristol, and I was promoted to Professor in 2010.  While at Bristol, I have investigated a wide variety of biogeochemical processes in ancient and modern environments, with research topics ranging from the controls on arsenic release in contaminated aquifers to reconstruction of ancient greenhouse climates.  My approach continues to be based on the application of isotopic and organic mass spectrometry to the most challenging and critical questions in these arenas. This research is inherently interdisciplinary, and I have worked with over 200 Bristol, UK and international collaborators.  In particular, I work with those employing alternative geochemical approaches, microbiologists and earth system modellers.  Such collaborations have created a fruitful environment in which to test ideas, challenge paradigms and generate new hypotheses.  We have developed new biomarker proxies for past marine biotic change, including during mass extinctions; evaluated Earth system sensitivity using new carbon dioxide and temperature records; and examined how methane cycling responds to changes in monsoon systems or rapid global warming. 

In 2013, I became Director of the Cabot Institute which engages interdisciplinary approaches to address the major environmental challenges of the 21st century.  We explore the complex biogeochemical changes occurring in the Earth system but also the new technologies and social relationships required to build resilient infrastructure, low-carbon energy systems, and sustainable food and water security.  Consequently, our research and engagement is broad, exemplified by a focus on understanding, mitigating and living with environmental uncertainty.  During 2015, when Bristol serves as the first UK European Green Capital, we will explore this topic in detail in a series of events badged as The Uncertain World.  Even as our understanding of climate and the environment improves and our climate models become more sophisticated, the continued physical, biological and chemical alteration of our environment is making it increasingly difficult to anticipate future change.  Our research must become more targeted and more ambitious to help people live on our rapidly changing planet.

In August of 2018, my tenure as Director of the Cabot Institute will end and I will become Head of School in Earth Sciences.