By Published: Feb. 17, 2022

Lizzy Trower, who studies modern environments to better understand past environments, is the first from the earth sciences to be recognized

A University of Colorado Boulder sedimentologist has been named a Sloan Research Fellow, the organization announced this week.

Lizzy Trower, an assistant professor of geological sciences, is being recognized for her interdisciplinary work using modern-day chemical sedimentology (the study of the rocks formed when sediments, such as minerals, settle outside of solutions, such as water) to better understand past environments on Earth.

Trower is one of 118 young scientists recognized this year from across the United States and Canada. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships honor extraordinary U.S. and Canadian researchers from fields across the sciences, including mathematics and computer science. The awards recognize those whose creativity, innovation and research accomplishments make them stand out as the next generation of leaders.

Lizzy Trower

At the top of the page: Ooid Sand of Salt Lake, Utah (Liangtai Lin/Flickr). Above: Lizzy Trower is one of this year's Sloan Research Fellows.

“Getting the fellowship is really meaningful for me,” says Trower. “I think sometimes as a junior faculty member, just putting so many of my creative research ideas out into the world and the way that it works is that so many of them come back and they’re like, ‘Well, this is close but not really’ and so it always feels really good to get a little boost like this to suggest that other people in my field think that my work is important.”

Broadly speaking, Trower is a process sedimentologist, which means her research group looks at the different processes involved in the creation of sediments, and how those sediments then eventually become rocks. Of those sediments, she focuses primarily on chemical sediments that form in the same environment into which they are deposited. These sediments, Trower says, provide a lot of information about these locations’ past environments, such as the chemical properties of water.

Of particular interest to Trower are “ooids”—small, spherical bead-like sand particles that tend to form in shallow seas. Unlike a lot of sand, these particles get bigger, rather than smaller, accruing more mineral layers like an onion. As they do that, they lose bits of themselves, but gain more information about the environment in which they form.

For a long time, this area of research has been static, Trower says. Carbon sedimentologists had a basic idea of how ooids were formed, and that was enough. However, for Trower, this indifference offered an opportunity to move past the theoretical and into the applied, understanding these particles from a quantitative point of view.

“I think that’s still kind of rare in my field to be able to move from a kind of hand-wavy theoretical understanding of how something works to feeling like you have a really good quantitative understanding of how a sand grain forms and how its environment will change its size and shape over time,” comments Trower.

Trower began her undergraduate career studying ooids before pivoting to something different for her dissertation. However, with this fellowship, Trower plans to return to that first love.

“The parallels of it all are great for me,” Trower says. “It really is giving me the opportunity to return to this unanswered question in one of the best places to return to it, which is the same field area that really first inspired my research interest.”

For Robert S. Anderson, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences, it’s no surprise that Trower has won this award.

It always feels really good to get a little boost like this to suggest that other people in my field think that my work is important."

“There is no doubt that Lizzy exemplifies an already ‘distinguished research performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to her field.’  Lizzy’s toolkit to probe the geologic record is absolutely unique,” said Anderson, who is a Distinguished Professor of the geological sciences.

“Funding for work at this intersection of fields—between microbiology and paleoclimate and sedimentology—is difficult within the funding structure of governmental agencies. This Sloan Fellowship will allow her the freedom to explore this interdisciplinary realm efficiently, and to make the splashes that I anticipate.”

A Sloan Research Fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards available to young researchers, the organization says. Many previous fellows have gone on to become prominent figures in the sciences, including winning such awards as the Nobel Prize—which has gone to previous Sloan fellows five of the last six years.

CU Boulder researchers have won 55 Sloan Research Fellowships over the years, with the last three being Jason Dexter and Andrew Lucas, both in physics, and Tam Vu in computer science, in 2020. Trower is the first from the geological sciences.

"Today's Sloan Research Fellows represent the scientific leaders of tomorrow," Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said in a press release. "As formidable young scholars, they are already shaping the research agenda within their respective fields—and their trailblazing won't end here."