President Bollinger Names Pioneering Oxford Geoscientist Alex Halliday to Head Earth Institute

December 14, 2017
Alex Halliday

Photo Courtesy of Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division, Oxford University

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger today announced his appointment of Alexander N. Halliday, a geochemistry professor at University of Oxford and vice president of the UK’s Royal Society, as the new Director of Columbia’s Earth Institute. Halliday’s groundbreaking work in isotope geochemistry has shaped our understanding of the formation and evolution of planets in our solar system, and the natural processes that modulate climate here on Earth.

“The work of Columbia’s Earth Institute, particularly on climate change and sustainable solutions across the globe, has never been more relevant or more urgent,” said Bollinger. “Alex Halliday is a renowned research scientist and skillful academic leader who is uniquely suited to charting the Institute’s future and its vital interdisciplinary role at the University.”

With about 400 published research papers, Halliday has been at the forefront of using mass spectrometry to measure small isotopic variations in elements found in nature, making it possible to analyze everything from meteorites to seawater to living organisms to understand the birth of our solar system, the origins of water on Earth, and how Earth’s oceans incorporate and remove elements that are key nutrients for sustaining life.

Halliday and his colleagues used a method developed in his lab, hafnium-tungsten radioactive dating, to show that Mars and most of Earth formed relatively soon after the solar system’s birth, within 10 million years of the solar system’s creation — a geological blink of an eye. They used similar radioactive-dating tools to show that the Moon emerged much later, consistent with a spectacular late collision with Earth. They also showed that the Earth and Moon are isotopically identical for key elements, unlike other planets in the solar system, indicating a strong genetic link. Last year, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) awarded Halliday one of its highest honors, the Harry Hess Medal, for this work.

“Columbia’s Earth Institute is the most distinguished and effective center of its kind in bringing so many leading researchers across disciplines together to understand and address issues facing our planet and its future,” said Halliday. “It is a critical time for us to expand the conversation about climate change and sustainability -- not only among researchers in many fields, but among everyone in our society -- and I could not be more enthusiastic about the opportunity to engage faculty, students, policymakers and citizens in this work at Columbia.”

Halliday has also distinguished himself as an effective leader and administrator. He helped Oxford grow into one of Europe’s largest research universities with a focus on strategic planning, faculty hiring and fundraising. As head of Oxford’s science and engineering division between 2007 and 2015, he launched several building projects, greatly expanded the number of postdoctoral research students, focused attention on diversity, and strengthened Oxford’s ties with government and the private sector. He also proposed the formation of ONE, the Oxford Networks for the Environment, linking academics across Oxford. Currently, as Vice President of the Royal Society, he has encouraged engagement between scientific researchers and those in the public and private sector on climate, energy, and other critical issues facing society.

As president of the Geochemical Society, Halliday established the Clair C Patterson Medal for environmental geochemistry. As president of the European Association of Geochemistry, Halliday ensured the organization’s financial independence and raised its prestige by expanding its annual conference and creating new awards. During his tenure at ETH-Zurich’s Department of Earth Sciences, he implemented a strategic plan for the department and helped network the university’s sustainability programs under one umbrella using Columbia’s Earth Institute as a model.

Halliday earned his undergraduate degree in geology at the University of Newcastle in northeastern England, followed by a Ph.D. in physics in 1977. He was a postdoctoral scholar at the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre, near Glasgow, before moving to the University of Michigan in 1986 to set up his own lab which he populated with the world’s most advanced mass spectrometers at the time. In 1998 Halliday moved to ETH-Zürich and in 2004 joined Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences.

In addition to AGU’s Harry Hess Medal, Halliday’s honors include the European Association of Geochemistry (EAG)’s Urey Award, Institute of Measurement and Control’s Oxburgh Medal for technique development in environmental science and engineering, and Geological Society of London’s Murchison Medal. He is a Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a member of Academia Europaea, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, AGU, Meteoritical Society, Geochemical Society and EAG. He has served as an editor or reviewing editor for several major journals, including Science and Earth and Planetary Sciences Letters.

Halliday succeeds former Earth Institute director, Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, who continues his tenure as a University Professor and Director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Development.

As a professor in Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Halliday will divide his time between Columbia’s Morningside campus and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he will establish his geochemistry lab. He will start in spring 2018.

"Alex Halliday is one of the outstanding scientists of his generation," said Donal D.C. Bradley, Head of Oxford's Division of Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences. "He has made immense contributions to the field of geochemistry and to the development of science and engineering at Oxford. We wish Alex continuing success at Columbia, and look forward to ongoing research collaborations at Oxford."