Because We Dared

Four at the forefront

Tetsuto Matsushita moved to Alberta from Japan to study with famed U of A paleontologist Phil Currie.

Nobody exemplifies “Dare to Discover”—the University of Alberta’s blueprint for greatness— better than the U of A’s exceptional researchers. From the earth’s prehistoric past to the solar wind in our planet’s magnetosphere, they’re exploring at the very frontiers of human knowledge.

Ian Mann

Ian Mann could be described as a cutting-edge “space weatherman.” Massive “space storms,” particles originating from solar flares or eruptions and carried through space on solar wind, carry the potential to devastate Earth’s technological infrastructure. One such event, the Carrington solar storm of 1859, caused worldwide damage to that era’s telegraph systems. In today’s world, a similar storm could generate losses in the trillions of dollars. Even a smaller solar storm can disrupt satellite communications. By better understanding the physics behind space weather, researchers like Mann hope to enable better forecasting, and to also help us anticipate and plan for severe solar storms.

World-renowned paleontologist Phil Currie has been fascinated with dinosaurs ever since he was a kid, digging around in cereal boxes hoping to find a plastic T-Rex. Since then, his passion has taken him from Drumheller to Mongolia, from Antarctica to Madagascar, and from pole to pole. He still spends much of his time digging for fossils in the field, when he isn’t teaching, supervising students, writing books, or helping to run Dino 101, the U of A’s groundbreaking, resoundingly popular MOOC (massive open online course). Clearly, he still has plenty of exploration left in his system. “We’ve only discovered about 1,000 species of dinosaur, and they were around for 150 million years,” he says. “When you realize we’ve identified more than 10,000 species of birds, which are dinosaurs, there’s still lots more digging to do for dinosaur bones in many different places around the world.”

Anthropologist Andrzej Weber is helping us piece together—often literally—the lives of individual prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Northeast Asia. He leads the Baikal-Hokkaido Archeology Project (BHAP), an international and multi-disciplinary team of scholars. By studying ancient skeletal remains, along with other archaeological evidence and the environmental surroundings, the team can build an understanding of an individual’s age, sex, diet, mobility, daily activities, health, and genetic traits. The team calls its new approach the “bioarcheology of individual life histories.” Weber is part scientist, part explorer, and part master detective. Like Philip Currie, he has no plans to stop digging. “Each time we find something different, and that’s what makes it all so exciting.”

John Geiger

On Sept. 8, 2014, U of A alumnus John Geiger (’81 BA) was aboard the search boat Voyager when Parks Canada researchers detected a large shipwreck in shallow Arctic Ocean waters near King William Island in Nunavut. It was the Erebus, one of two missing ships in Sir John Franklin’s legendary lost expedition, which vanished in the 1840s during its failed search for the Northwest Passage. Geiger had been fascinated with the Franklin Expedition since he was a young history undergrad in the 1970s. Later, he partnered with anthropology professor Owen Beattie on the best-selling book Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. In coming years, as work continues to recover artifacts (and to continue the search for Franklin’s other ship, Terror), Geiger hopes to see his alma mater at the forefront. “The U of A has always had this incredible tradition of Northern and Arctic research,” he says. “They have a vast array of resources, and I imagine could even become involved in work on the wreck and its artifacts.”