Couple establishes fund to support student research in interdisciplinary science

Francisco Tutella
April 13, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Marilyn Fogel, who graduated in 1973 with a degree in biology, may have come to Penn State for the football games, but she left with an appreciation for the interdisciplinary research that would define her career.

Now, she and her husband, Christopher Swarth, aim to get more Penn State students engaged in interdisciplinary research through the establishment of the Marilyn L. Fogel Student Research Fund in Biogeosciences. Biogeosciences combines the fields of geoscience and biological science to answer questions about the modern world and living ecosystems as well as the beginnings of life on Earth. The couple’s $25,000 gift will support research activities for undergraduate and graduate students affiliated with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI) in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) and will have a particular emphasis on enabling field or laboratory research focused on geology, ecology, meteorology, biogeochemistry, climate science and geography.

“Chris and I are thrilled to have the opportunity to create an endowed fund that promotes biogeosciences in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute,” said Fogel. “We know the importance of providing opportunities for students to experience thinking outside of a traditional scientific field and open their minds to a new way of critical thinking.”

Fogel enrolled at Penn State as a biology major, but she found her calling as a biogeochemist after taking several classes in EMS that sparked an interest in the study of the origins of life, including courses in paleobotany, coal petrology and physical geology.

Two courses in particular had a profound impact on her career trajectory. Fogel took part in Penn State’s Wallops Island Marine Science program, a course on a Virginia barrier island, in its inaugural year in 1972. The program, with its emphasis on fieldwork on the island’s marshes, beaches and coastal waters, confirmed for Fogel that she wanted to do research with a fieldwork component.

She also enrolled in an organic geochemistry class taught by the late Peter H. Given, professor emeritus and first chair of the former Fuel Science Program in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. There she learned to apply her knowledge of chemistry to understand the biological, environmental and ecological processes that shaped life on Earth.

“I was fascinated with the instruments, the methods and the papers that I encountered in that class,” said Fogel, who would apply this knowledge throughout her career studying tiny particles called stable isotopes to understand the processes that shaped modern and ancient ecosystems. “When I started in geochemistry, I wasn’t at all interested in using stable isotopes for my research, but that certainly changed when I went to graduate school.”

Marilyn Fogel and Christopher Swarth

Fogel and Swarth at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2019.

IMAGE: Image courtesy of Marilyn Fogel and Christopher Swarth

Fogel received her doctorate in botany and marine sciences from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977 and shortly thereafter became a staff scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. She worked there for 35 years, becoming a leading expert in stable isotope chemistry and a pioneer in the emerging biogeosciences field. Her work has led to breakthroughs in multiple disciplines, including paleoecology and climate change, astrobiology and modern ecosystem studies.

“Marilyn had a bigger field program at the Carnegie Lab than any other staff scientist,” said Swarth, who also shares an affinity for conducting research outdoors. Swarth holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology and biology and spent his career directing nature reserves, first as director of the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Maryland and then as reserve director of the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve in Merced, California, up to his retirement in 2016.

The two have accompanied each other on research trips to some of the most remote places on the planet, such as Svalbard, Norway, to test equipment that would eventually make it to Mars on the Curiosity rover, the Outback of Australia and remote islands in Hudson Bay, Canada.

“Marilyn also loves her amazingly complicated, expensive, technical and delicate machines,” added Swarth. “Almost every day of her working career and retirement, she’s talking and advising colleagues about aspects of mass spectrometry and the machines it takes to get the data she studies.”

In 2013, Fogel became a professor at the University of California, Merced, and in 2016 accepted a position at UC Riverside, where she is professor emerita in Earth and planetary sciences and still directs the Environmental Dynamics and Geo-Ecology Institute.

Fogel has received numerous professional recognitions for her pioneering work in the biogeosciences, including being named Fellow in the American Geophysical Union, American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geochemical Society. In 2019 she was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and she is the first woman to receive the Alfred Treibs Medal in organic geochemistry from the Geochemical Society.

Fogel and Swarth have made gifts to EESI over the years and have appreciated the notes and photographs they’ve received from students whose research they have supported.

“The specifics you hear back about how your money was used makes you feel good and makes you realize that your funds were needed and used to accomplish important education and research,” said Swarth.

The endowed fund that the couple is establishing will ensure that students for many years to come will have opportunities to conduct interdisciplinary fieldwork and laboratory research. Such work will help to answer questions about how living organisms, including humans, have adapted to and changed the Earth, questions to which Fogel has dedicated her career.

“As scientists increasingly cross disciplines, we still tend to teach our courses in biology, geology, physics, and chemistry separately,” said Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of EESI. “With help from donors like Marilyn and Chris, Penn State is encouraging students to follow in her pioneering footsteps to answer vexing questions at the crossroads of the sciences.”

The couple is currently involved in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at UC Riverside and in California’s Central Valley. In addition to facilitating graduate and postdoctoral research at Penn State, they hope this fund will also support the institute and college as they work to get researchers from underrepresented groups more involved in the earth and environmental sciences.

The Marilyn L. Fogel Student Research Fund in Biogeosciences will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st-Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 29, 2021