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Tim Lowenstein

Three geological societies honor Lowenstein

By Anika Michel

Harpur College professor Tim Lowenstein has recently been made a fellow by the Mineral Society of America and the Society of Economic Geology, and will be made a fellow by the Geological Society of America later this year. In addition to being recognized by three geological societies, Lowenstein is also the 2012 recipient of the Israel C. Russell Award for his research in limnogeology.

Limnogeology is a field that focuses on the study of ancient and modern lakes around the world. Each year, the Geological Society of America presents the Israel C. Russell Award, one the organization's Division Awards, to a distinguished scientist in limnogeology.

Lowenstein said his research of lake deposits has led to a newfound knowledge of ancient environments on earth.

"I have looked at a certain kind of lake deposits: saline lakes," said Lowenstein, a professor of geological sciences and environmental studies. "From looking at these lake deposits, we have learned a lot about ancient climate, ancient atmospheric carbon dioxide, and also about ancient organisms on earth."

To further explain how lake deposits preserve ancient organisms, Lowenstein pulled out a crystal of salt that he and a team of researchers found on an excursion in Cleveland.

"Inside that crystal of salt is air and water, and the bubble is floating in the water" he said as he pointed to the crystal. "So the idea that we have been looking at is that air bubbles and water get trapped inside the salt. Also, microbes get trapped inside the salts. So we have been studying ancient microbes that are trapped inside salt crystals."

The discovery of the salt crystal garnered a two-page spread in the March 2011 issue of Popular Science magazine. The issue featured a magnified view of the crystal, with a caption that detailed the importance of the discovery and Lowenstein's involvement in extracting it.

"We study the microorganisms that get trapped inside of salt, and it tells us something about how Achaea can live for thousands of years," Lowenstein said. "They're still alive while they're trapped inside these crystals."

The idea of organisms living for thousands of years can provide knowledge on extraterrestrial life, Lowenstein said.

"We're looking for these kinds of microbes on Mars, so the idea is that these studies may help us in the search for life on Mars," he said.

As Lowenstein discussed his curiosity as to how these microbes can survive in a "state of suspended animation," he recalled how he first became interested in the study of lakes many years ago.

"When I was in graduate school, I became interested in this stuff," he said. "I had a professor that turned my interest in looking at lakes, and all of the interesting science that it brings."

Much like the professor who stirred his interest as a graduate student, Lowenstein hopes to do the same for his own students.

"My goal is for my students to come to class every day and be interested in what they're learning about," he said. "Some of them are graduate students and will be using some of this as the basis for their own research. It feels good for a professor to get other people interested in what they're doing. That's a real nice goal for anybody—myself included."

Lowenstein has already made future limnogeology research plans.

"I will be working with a team this coming summer in a lake basin in Kenya," he said. "It's called Lake Magadi."

"The idea for this project is that we're studying lakes where early humans have evolved," Lowenstein said. "We want to see how the evolution of hominin may have been influenced by climate change."

Lowenstein is enthusiastic about the upcoming research trip.

"This is a project that we just got funded for, so we're good to go," he said.

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Last Updated: 3/8/13