State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Lamont Alumna Receives Prestigious Prize

susan trumbore
Susan Trumbore is a pioneer in the use of radiocarbon measurements in environmental research, particularly in how carbon flows from the atmosphere through plants and soils. Photo: Anna Schroll / Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry

Susan Trumbore (GSAS ’89), an alumna of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is among four recipients of the 2020 Balzan Prize, one of the most prestigious international awards in natural science and humanities. Trumbore received the prize for “her outstanding contributions to the study of the carbon cycle and its effects on climate, and for pioneering the use of radiocarbon measurements in Earth-system research.”

Trumbore, now a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine as well as director of the Department of Biogeochemical Processes at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, earned her Ph.D. at Lamont in 1989. She is among a cadre of scientists to work with famous Lamont geochemist Wallace Broecker. Broecker, who died in 2019, was one of the first scientists to predict an imminent rise in Earth’s temperature due to human output of carbon dioxide.

In a recent interview, Trumbore mentioned Broecker as a major influence in her career. “As a child, I loved to read natural history books and really wanted to travel to all the exotic places in books. My Ph.D. advisor, Wally Broecker, supported my desires to travel the oceans and the world. This let me be among the first women to go on research vessels and ultimately to study the age of carbon in soils using radiocarbon dating methods. Finally, I was able to travel the world to collect samples!”

Trumbore’s research centers on understanding how human activity alters the Earth’s natural exchanges of carbon among the ocean, land and atmosphere, through the study of soils, a topic she also studied as a student in the geochemistry department at Lamont. Her doctoral thesis was titled, Carbon cycling and gas exchange in soils.

After Lamont, Trumbore worked at the ETH Zurich, where she was part of the group that radiocarbon dated the Shroud of Turin, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In 1991, she was hired as one of the founding members of a new Earth System Science department at the University of California, Irvine. Trumbore has been director at the Max Planck Institute since 2009.

Lamont interim director Maureen E. Raymo said Trumbore’s career and this profoundly prestigious prize speak to Lamont’s excellence in Earth science research and its enduring leadership in preparing the scientists to advance important new knowledge about our planet. “We are so proud of Dr. Trumbore,” said Raymo.

Trumbore said, “Through our work, we have been able to demonstrate that current global models overestimate the rate that carbon can be stored in soils, which should inform policies about how much CO2 can be safely emitted into the atmosphere by humans.”

The Balzan Prize is the latest in a collection of international honors for Trumbore, who is a Fellow of both the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal.

The Balzan Prize includes an award of $830,000, half of which should be dedicated to further research projects involving young scientists.

This report includes material adapted from a UCI press release.

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