UGA Researcher Peter van der Beek wins 5-year European Grant
The ERC Advanced Grant, which is awarded to advanced researchers to pursue excellence in their academic disciplines, will fund Dr. van der Beek’s research into the morphology of glaciated mountain belts.
Van der Beek’s research focuses on both the mechanisms that create mountains and the processes of erosion that wear them away. Looking at these actions together allows for a complete model of mountain forms – their morphology – throughout their history. Advanced modelling techniques can reveal the past and the future of this morphology.

Interdisciplinary links to climate science

Initially trained in tectonics, van der Beek realized that he could not fully understand mountain morphology without also investigating the processes that wear them down. It was during a post-doctoral fellowship in Australia that he was able to add the skills and knowledge to become a geomorphologist, and eventually led him to his current project.

One of the controversies in the field today has to do with the role of glaciers in erosion – this is why the funded project will examine glaciated mountain belts. Climate and temperature conditions change the extent of glacier formation, which in turn affects the erosion and final form of the mountains in these belts.

Ensuring the future of scientific inquiry

Van der Beek says that the project is the result of a lifetime of work and planning: “I’m really excited about it, it’s something I’ve been thinking about literally for years.” Today, only one lab in the world, in Berkeley, California, does the type of analysis that the project will carry out. Having worked with the Berkeley team in the past, van der Beek is convinced that this approach is the future of the field.

The grant will fund a new mass spectrometer, which will allow for very precise measurements, as well as an expert to run the machine. Mass spectrometry is a technique that can be used to determine the chemical composition of a sample, shedding light on erosion and climate conditions via chemical analysis.

The grant will also create two post-doctoral positions in measurement and in modelling. Several doctoral students will do their dissertation work as a part of the project.

An international path

A combination of professional and personal life decisions has moved van der Beek around the world throughout his career.

A Dutchman, he began his studies at UGA strategic partner Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which offered high-quality training in the modelling techniques that are still part of his work today. His love of the mountains takes him to the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Himalayas, and his research ties him to colleagues and students as far away as South America, Iran, and China.

Currently in Germany, van der Beek says that the Humboldt Fellowship which brought him there is what allowed the time and space to write a good ERC grant proposal.

He says this story is very typical, and one of the many attractions of a life in science: “The world is your playing field.” Geology may attract students who are interested in travel, and also in exploring more generally, getting to be outside, in the mountains doing field work.
Published on April 30, 2019
Updated on April 30, 2019