New geosciences head hopes to foster new ideas, continue department's success

Liam Jackson
May 17, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If Demian Saffer can make one thing happen in his new role as head of Penn State's Department of Geosciences, it's to provide more ways for the department's faculty, students and staff to pursue innovative endeavors.

"I'm excited to foster opportunities for our researchers to take on high-risk, high-reward projects such as developing new courses or trailblazing new scientific techniques," said Saffer, professor of geosciences. "Our researchers and staff need the chance to 'think big,' and I'm looking forward to putting together a proposal-based process to make this happen."

On July 1, he will take over the role of department head from Timothy Bralower, professor of geosciences, who served as interim department head since Lee Kump left the role in June 2017 to become dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

With help from administrators throughout his research career, Saffer had opportunities to pioneer new data collection techniques for earthquakes, as well as secure leadership roles as co-chief scientist aboard four ocean drilling missions. These missions, organized by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), require a high-functioning team that's often made up of scientists from around the world. These opportunities, he said, helped him hone his science leadership skills. He is currently wrapping up an IODP mission, on which he is co-chief scientist, that seeks to unlock the secrets of slow earthquakes. 

Another formative experience in his leadership development, Saffer said, has been serving as chair of the National Science Foundation-funded Geodynamic Processes at Rifting and Subducting Margins (GeoPRISMS) program. Leading this since October 2016, Saffer has developed ways to connect geosciences researchers across a spectrum of geosciences disciplines, from stratigraphy to paleoclimatology to oceanography, to understand how the Earth's continental margins developed.

"This was an opportunity for me to lead the development of a diverse research community through workshops and collaborative research projects," he said.

Taking charge of a model program

Since joining the Penn State faculty in 2005, Saffer said he has seen time after time that Penn State's Department of Geosciences is a model department that has inspired similar departments around the world.

"It amazes me how many people I meet at other universities who want to emulate our department," he said. "It's a great source of pride for me, and my overarching goal as department head would be to continue this legacy."

Saffer said he wants to continue building on the success achieved by administrators before him — in recruiting underrepresented students, in supporting the development of online education programming, and, possibly most importantly, in keeping an open mind about new projects.

"The leaders in my career who have really made a difference have consistently kept a balanced viewpoint and maintained intellectual flexibility," he said. "These are two qualities that I hope to embody so that I can pay forward the positive impact others had on me."

Saffer received a bachelor of arts degree in geology from Williams College in 1995 and a doctorate in Earth sciences in 1999 from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has authored or co-authored more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and has secured funding from the National Science Foundation, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, the American Chemical Society, the U.S. Department of Energy, Saudi Aramco, and ExxonMobil, among other funding agencies.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 21, 2018