A program designed to study the mid-ocean ridge system and enhance understanding of the relationship between the geological processes that lead to planetary renewal in the deep ocean and life forms that thrive in the absence of sunlight has found a home at Penn State.

The RIDGE 2000 Program, created with the input of more than 200 U.S. scientists and funded by the National Science Foundation, has elected Charles Fisher, professor of biology at Penn State, as chair of its 15-member steering committee. His three-year term coincides with the creation of the program office at Penn State, with support from the National Science Foundation, the Eberly College of Science and the Department of Biology.

Along with Fisher, the office will include three full-time employees: a program coordinator, a program assistant and an education/outreach coordinator.

“As the action arm for the steering committee, the office works to foster collaboration and communication,” Fisher says. “We strive to get everybody working together so that the most progress can be made, and to communicate the excitement of our work to audiences that range from the NSF and legislators to secondary-school students and the general public.”

The RIDGE 2000 program works to understand the geobiological, geochemical and geophysical causes and consequences of energy transfer within the globe-encircling mid-ocean ridge system.

The mid-ocean ridge system marks the boundary along which Earth’s major tectonic plates form. As volcanic material from the planet’s mantle surges to the seafloor, it helps resurface the Earth and impacts the deep-ocean environment and its inhabitants.

For 12 years starting in 1988, a predecessor program, the Ridge InterDisciplinary Global Experiments (RIDGE) Program, promoted research, scientific communication and outreach related to all aspects of the mid-ocean ridge system. When that program ended, RIDGE 2000 built on the experience, knowledge and lessons learned through its predecessor to develop a more focused program stressing integrated interdisciplinary collaboration and long-term experiments in a limited number of areas of the deep ocean.

With Fisher as chair of the steering committee and the program office located at Penn State, RIDGE 2000 already has differentiated itself from its predecessor program. Fisher becomes the first biologist to chair the committee — all the others were geoscientists — and Penn State becomes the first land-locked institution to house the program office.

According to the RIDGE 2000 science plan, as many as five different deep-ocean sites will be the focus of integrated efforts that involve eight or ten research cruises, and an investment of about $27 million for research, at each site during the next decade.

Science involved in the program requires many different disciplines necessary for the study of the ocean crust and its actions, complex ecosystems, and hydrothermal vents. Those disciplines include: biology, chemistry, geology, and physics.

The RIDGE 2000 program will focus on the integration of research across a wide range of disciplines, emphasizing the interactions between the complex seafloor and subseafloor ecosystems as well as the geological processes that support them.

“With RIDGE 2000, we plan an increased commitment to large-scale interdisciplinary science,” Fisher says. “We will involve all kinds of scientists at one site at the same time and will address questions that bridge gaps between disciplines. Through the initial RIDGE Program, a strong sense of community emerged among scientists and we want to perpetuate that positive, proactive approach to collaboration with RIDGE 2000.”

Scientists in related disciplines on campus already have provided abundant support for the effort. Many anticipate the benefits of interdisciplinary research efforts as well as the positives for the University.

“RIDGE 2000 provides a wonderful opportunity and resource for Penn State,” says Tanya Furman, associate professor and associate head of the Department of Geosciences. “We already have several faculty members in geosciences who work with ridge-related matters and Professor Fisher has valuable experience and a strong reputation with the program.”

The program’s research could make an impact beyond the ocean as well. For example, the lowest levels of the ridge ecosystem contain abundant microbial populations, including some of the most primitive life forms on our planet. Recognition of the subsurface ecosystem has prompted speculation that there are other parts of the solar system, especially the moons of Jupiter, that are capable of supporting similar life forms.

“Many of us already cross college and departmental boundaries with our work and having the RIDGE 2000 office here might facilitate even more interaction among those of us on campus,” says Kevin Furlong, professor of geosciences. “Along with efforts such as Penn State’s NASA-funded Astrobiology Institute, we have people who do oceanographic and ocean-related research in the Eberly College of Science, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and the Department of Meteorology. We do a large amount of ocean-related research for a land-locked institution and this should make even more people aware of our efforts.”

Fisher joined the Penn State faculty in 1990 as an assistant professor and was named associate professor in 1995 and professor in 1999. He earned his doctoral degree in biological sciences at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1985 and his bachelor’s degree in biology at Michigan State University in 1976.

In the past 19 years, he has made 75 deep-sea dives in research submersibles and has spent another 54 days at sea working with deep-diving remotely operated vehicles. He also participates in the Research and Education: Volcanoes, Exploration, and Life (REVEL) program designed to provide research experiences for middle-school and high-school teachers.

He has received numerous honors for his research and teaching, including recognition among “The Year’s Best” from Popular Science in 1997 for making one of the top 100 discoveries in science and technology.

In addition, he earned the Penn State C. I Noll Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2001, the Penn State Faculty Associates Award in 1997, a Collaborative Instructional and Curricular Innovation Award from Penn State in 1996, and a Presidential Young Investigator award from the National Science Foundation in 1991.

Support staff hired to fill two of the new jobs created at Penn State as a result of the RIDGE grant include Patty Nordstrom, program assistant, and Liz Goehring, education and outreach coordinator.

Related websites:

High-resolution images

RIDGE 2000 Science Plan

[Contact: Charles Fisher, Barbara K. Kennedy]