David A. Fike, PhD, assistant professor of isotope biogeochemistry in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences, was named a Packard Fellow, a prestigious distinction awarded to only 17 top young researchers nationwide this year.
The Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering provide support for “creative researchers” in the first three years of their faculty careers, “emphasizing support for innovative individual research that involves the Fellows, their students and junior colleagues.”
The award comes with a five-year, $875,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Fike, who joined the WUSTL faculty in 2009, says he will use the money to figure out what makes micro-organisms grow and what makes them fail to thrive and how, in turn, the micro-organisms have steered the evolution of earth’s ecology.
Fike’s novel approach to geology, which integrates biology and chemistry in a geological framework, may finally allow the solution of longstanding problems in the interpretation of Earth’s history.
What explains the lag of hundreds of millions of years between the appearance of the first organisms that produced oxygen as a byproduct of their metabolism and the rapid increase in atmospheric oxygen, for example?
Fike, who has earned degrees in geology, astronomy, engineering physics, polar studies and isotope geochemistry (the latter, a doctorate in 2007 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), tackles such questions by analyzing the concentrations of isotopes of carbon and sulfur that are diagnostic for microbial activity in biogenic sedimentary minerals or ancient organic matter.
Douglas A. Wiens, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, who nominated Fike for the fellowship, says Fike made a name for himself by analyzing carbon and sulfur isotope ratios at unprecedented resolution.
This allowed Fike to document when Earth’s oceans first shifted from the chemically reducing conditions lethal to life to the oxygenated ones familiar to us today. He was then able to link this change in ocean chemistry and environmental conditions to the evolution of the earliest multi-celled animals.
“In other words, by investigating chemistry at the smallest spatial scales, Fike has been able to extract information with global implications,” Wiens says. “His initial paper, published in Nature, has influenced many researchers in this field.”
“Fike is an excellent teacher as well as an innovative researcher,” Wiens says. “He’s developed new courses and freshman seminars and helped us recruit new graduate students. And he welcomes undergraduates in his lab.”
Fike is only the fifth WUSTL faculty member to be named a Packard Fellow since the program was initiated in 1988.