Professor Stearns recognized with NSF CAREER Award


By Bill Daehler
Spring 2013

CReSIS’ Leigh Stearns was recently awarded the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) CAREER Award to research the flow dynamics of Antarctic glaciers. The award will support the construction of a new online and interactive model that will allow students and researchers explore glaciological data and test model hypotheses.

“My goal is to create an online model that will allow a variety of people to learn about glacier dynamics and the sensitivity of specific glaciers to climate forcings,” said Stearns, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Kansas.

“There is a wealth of evidence showing that visualizations and interactive models help students and researchers form and test hypotheses. I hope to make glacier and ice sheet models more accessible to the general public by creating this online resource.”

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports junior faculty who have demonstrated an extraordinary ability as “teacher-scholars.” It recognizes excellence in research, teaching and integrating learning and research—the award is the NSF’s most prestigious recognition of junior faculty.

Leigh Stearns

Photo 1: Dr. Leigh Stearns, recipient of the NSF's CAREER Award.

“The aim of my integrated education and research program is to use numerical models to improve understanding of Antarctic glacier dynamics while also familiarizing students with applied math, science and modeling techniques,” said Stearns’ proposal.

The research will examine the flow dynamics of Antarctica’s glaciers using a physically-based numerical model. This model will then be used to test the response of glaciers to different perturbations.

Glacier Flow Schematic

Photo 2: A figure from Stearns' proposal illustrating the forces affecting glaciers. The figure was designed by CReSIS GRA Kuang Chen Hsu. Courtesy of Dr. Stearns.

The model will tell students and scientists what “climate and non-climate variables” a particular glacier is sensitive to, how its mass flux (the rate of mass flow per unit area) will change from different perturbations and how responses will differ across the Antarctic ice sheet.

The award will not only be used to make contributions to ice sheet modeling; it will also include education and outreach support, according to the NSF.

The award of more than $114,000 will provide funding from August 2013 to July 2018 and will support both a post-doctoral researcher and a Ph.D. student. This will provide important training experience in “glaciology, modeling, computer programming and science education” for Stearns and her team, according to the NSF.

Part of the award will be used to connect the scientific community’s data and models with high school and college students. This is a “much-needed” bridge to foster the public’s understanding of polar science.

Additionally, this research is important because glaciers are a significant force affecting sea level rise—though it is not well understood by the scientific community.

“Understanding the physical processes controlling glacier behavior is critical to developing improved sea level rise estimates,” said Stearns’ proposal.