Published: May 5, 2021

Geologist Robert S. Anderson and astrophysicist Fran Bagenal recognized for ‘distinguished and continuing achievements in original research’

Two professors from the University of Colorado Boulder have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the academy has announced.

Robert S. Anderson, distinguished professor of geological sciences and fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), and Frances Bagenal, professor emeritus of astrophysical and planetary sciences and senior research scientist at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), are among 120 new members of the academy—59 of whom are women, the most elected in a single year. 

Election to the National Academy of Sciences reflects the scientists’ “distinguished and continuing achievements in original research,” the academy said. 

“The historic number of women elected this year reflects the critical contributions that they are making in many fields of science, as well as a concerted effort by our academy to recognize those contributions and the essential value of increasing diversity in our ranks,” said Marcia McNutt, the academy’s president.  

“I am pleased to welcome all of our new members, and I look forward to engaging with them in the work of the National Academies.” 

Fran Bagenal

At the top of the page: National Academy of Sciences. Above: Fran Bagenal

Bagenal, who specializes in the fields of planetary magnetospheres and the solar corona, has been involved in several NASA missions to planetary objects, including Voyager, Galileo, Deep Space 1, New Horizons and Juno. 

Saying it is a “great honor” to be elected by and to such a prestigious group of scientists, she added: “Most heart-warming is to receive emails of support from around the world, some from people I have not seen in decades, some from people who encouraged me in my early career,” Bagenal said. “My hope is that I can find ways to put my involvement in the National Academy of Sciences to good use—to benefit the community of scientists.”

Bagenal co-chairs a National Academy of Sciences committee formed to address increasing diversity and inclusion in the leadership of competed space missions. Noting that NASA is keen to address this issue and that CU Boulder has long played a large role in space missions Bagenal said the university can play a major role in diversifying mission teams. 

“Interestingly, via LASP’s involvement with the United Arab Emirates’ mission to Mars, we were impressed by the women leading the UAE team,” she said.

But, she added, the career pathway to leading a space mission is long and tortuous. “I’ve been following the demographics of the physical sciences for a couple decades, and while the involvement has of women has been slowly increasing, the participation of people of color has remained tiny.” 

The “pinch-point” seems to be at college, she said. 

“As the science education research groups here at CU has been showing for many years, large lecture courses with intimidating math requirements can be demoralizing,” Bagenal said, adding that CU Boulder’s Physics Department is pioneering classroom techniques to increase student engagement. 

“But there’s a long way to go to reach anything close to gender equity or racial representation at the bachelor’s level, let alone leading space missions. Perhaps by pointing out these issues and recommending remedies, our National Academy of Sciences’ committee can help push resources towards pragmatic solutions,” she said.

Bagenal has been a faculty member at CU Boulder since 1989. She holds a PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and bachelor’s degrees in physics and geophysics from the University of Lancaster, England.

Robert Anderson

Robert S. Anderson

Anderson, a geomorphologist who studies the surface of the planet and how it has evolved, has previously been recognized as fellow in the American Geophysical Union and a fellow at the Geological Society of America. He won the Hazel Barnes Prize, the most prestigious award bestowed to faculty at CU Boulder, in 2014, and he was named a distinguished professor in 2015. 

He, too, expressed gratitude on his election. 

“I am deeply honored to have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, which is salted and peppered with my own heroes,” Anderson said, adding: “I am especially pleased to be part of an incoming class that is essentially 50-50 women and men, the highest ratio to date.”

He said he looks forward to the opportunity to work with other members of the academy on problems of importance to the broader scientific community, and to the earth sciences in particular.  

“My own expertise is in problems related to the surface of our planet, and how its glaciers, its coastlines, its rivers and its hillslopes reflect the history of climate,” he said. “I hope to bring that perspective to the table.”

Anderson has been a faculty member at CU Boulder since 2003. He holds a PhD in geological sciences from the University of Washington in Seattle, an MS in Earth sciences from Stanford University and a BA in geology from Williams College in Massachusetts. 

Those elected this year bring the total number of active members to 2,461 and the total number of international members to 511. International members are nonvoting members of the academy, with citizenship outside the United States.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Lincoln in 1863. 

It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and—with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine—provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.