Williams College Geosciences Professor Wins NSF Grant

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Phoebe Cohen, associate professor of geosciences at Williams College, has been awarded a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation.

The two-year grant totaling $79,585 will support Cohen's research about the co-evolution of life and environments throughout earth's history.

Cohen's research project, titled "Using Organic Carbon Isotopes of Single Microfossils to Illuminate Proterozoic Eukaryotic Ecosystems," will explore the relationships between biology and the rise of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. Working in collaboration with faculty at Syracuse University and the University of California, Santa Barbara — who each received additional NSF funding — as well as undergraduate students, the project will measure organic carbon isotopes of microscopic fossils, which represent our best window into the evolution of life before the rise of animals, a time period known as the Proterozoic.

"While we have learned a significant amount about the Proterozoic Earth system in the last few decades, major questions remain," said Cohen, a paleontologist whose research utilizes a wide variety of microscopic and microchemical techniques, combined with data from field-based stratigraphy and sedimentology, to reconstruct ancient organisms and ecosystems. "Measuring organic carbon isotopes of microscopic fossils will help us figure out where in the oceans early organisms were living and if early life could thrive in waters with little or no oxygen."



In addition to illuminating persistent unknowns in the Proterozoic Earth system, Cohen's project aims to create new geochemical and paleontological educational modules for K-12 and college educators, develop innovative organic geochemistry techniques that will be shared with the broader scientific community, and add information on early fossil life to the open-access Paleobiology Database.

"Stable isotopes are a fantastic tool to illuminate ancient ecosystems," says Mea Cook, chair and associate professor of geosciences. "We're excited about the pioneering work Professor Cohen and her students will do with the support of this research grant."

Cohen joined the faculty at Williams in 2012 and received tenure in 2018. She teaches such courses as The Co-Evolution of Earth and Life, Paleobiology, and Geobiology. She also serves as a coordinator of the First3 new faculty orientation program. In 2012 Cohen received the Geological Society of America’s Subaru Outstanding Woman in Science Award. She received a B.A. from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

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