Robert van der Hilst to step down as head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
Professor led EAPS for more than a decade, cultivating a focus on Earth systems, planets, climate science, and the origins of life
Robert van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has announced his decision to step down as the head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the end of this academic year. A search committee will convene later this spring to recommend candidates for Van der Hilst’s successor.
“Rob is a consummate seismologist whose images of Earth’s interior structure have deepened our understanding of how tectonic plates move, how mantle convection works, and why some areas of the Earth are hot spots for seismic and geothermal activity,” says Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis (1963) and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and the dean of the MIT School of Science. “As an academic leader, Rob has been a steadfast champion of the department’s cross-cutting research and education missions, especially regarding climate sciences writ large at MIT. His commitment to diversity and community have made the department — and indeed, MIT — a better place to do our best work.”
“For 12 years, it has been my honor to lead this department and collaborate with all our community members — faculty, staff, and students,” says Van der Hilst. “EAPS is at the vanguard of climate science research at MIT, as well Earth and planetary sciences and studies into the coevolution of life and changing environments.”
Among his other leadership roles on campus, Van der Hilst most recently served as co-chair of the faculty review committee for MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges in which EAPS researchers secured nine finalists and two, funded flagship projects. He also serves on the Institute’s Climate Nucleus to help enact Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade.
In his more-than-decade as department head, one of Van der Hilst’s major initiatives has been developing, funding, and constructing the Tina and Hamid Moghadam Building, rapidly nearing completion adjacent to Building 54. Building 55, designed to meet LEED-platinum certification, will be a vital center and showcase for environmental and climate research on MIT’s campus. With assistance from the Institute and generous donors, the renovations and expansion will add classrooms, meeting and event spaces, and bring headquarters offices for EAPS, the MIT–Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science and Engineering, and MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative together, all under one roof.
He also helped secure the generous gift that funded the Rasmussen Laboratory for climate research in Building 4, as well as the Peter H. Stone and Paola Malanotte Stone Professorship, now held by prominent atmospheric scientist Arlene Fiore.
On the academic side of the house, Van der Hilst and his counterpart from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Ali Jadbabaie, the JR East Professor and CEE department head, helped develop MIT’s new bachelor of science in climate system science and engineering (Course 1-12), jointly offered by EAPS and CEE.
As part of MIT’s commitment to aid the global response to climate change, the new degree program is designed to train the next generation of leaders, providing a foundational understanding of both the Earth system and engineering principles — as well as an understanding of human and institutional behavior as it relates to the climate challenge.
Beyond climate research, Van der Hilst’s tenure at the helm of the department has seen many research breakthroughs and accomplishments: from high-profile NASA missions with EAPS science leadership, including the most recent launch of the Psyche mission, and the successful asteroid sample return from OSIRIS-REx, to the development of next-generation models capable of describing Earth systems with increasing detail and accuracy. Van der Hilst helped enable such scientific advancements through major improvements to experimental facilities across the department, and, more generally, his mission to double the number of fellowships available to EAPS graduate students.
“By reducing the silos and inequities created by our disciplinary groups, we were able to foster collaborations that allow faculty, students, and researchers to explore fundamental science questions in novel ways that expand our understanding of the natural world — with profound implications for helping to guide communities and policymakers toward a sustainable future,” says Van der Hilst.
In 2019, Van der Hilst began looking ahead to the department’s 40th anniversary in 2023 and charged a number of working groups to evaluate the department’s past and present, and to reimagine its future. Led by faculty, staff, and students, Task Force 2023 was a yearlong exercise of data gathering and community deliberation, looking broadly at three focus areas: Image, Visibility, and Relevance; External Synergies: Collaboration and Partnerships across Campus; and Departmental Organization and Cohesion. Despite being interrupted by the pandemic, the resulting reports became a detailed blueprint for EAPS to capitalize on its strengths and begin to effect systemic improvements in areas like undergraduate education, external messaging, and recognition and belonging for administrative and research staff.
In addition to helping the department mark its 40th anniversary with a celebration this coming spring, Van der Hilst will oversee the dedication of the Moghadam Building, including the renaming of lecture hall 54-100 for Dixie Lee Bryant, who, in 1891 was the first recipient (woman or man) of a geology degree from MIT.
As department head, faculty renewal and retention were key areas of focus for Van der Hilst. In addition to improvements in the faculty search process, he was responsible for the appointment of 20 new faculty members, and in the process shifted the gender ratio from one-fifth to one-third of the faculty identifying as female; he also oversaw the development and implementation of a successful junior faculty mentoring program within EAPS in 2013.
Van der Hilst also made great strides toward improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within the department in other ways. In 2016, he formed the inaugural EAPS Diversity Council (now the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee) and, in 2020, made EAPS the first department at MIT to appoint an associate department head for diversity, equity, and inclusion, tapping Associate Professor David McGee to guide ongoing community dialogues and initiatives supporting improvements in composition, achievement, belonging, engagement, and accountability.
With McGee and EAPS student leadership, Van der Hilst supported the EAPS response to calls for social justice leadership and participation in national initiatives, such as the American Geophysical Union’s Unlearning Racism in Geoscience program, and he helped navigate the changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic while maintaining a sense of community.
A longer version of this announcement appeared on MIT News on Nov. 6, 2023.