Dr. James Farquhar
By Wynne Anderson
A closer look into James Farquhar’s scientific career path might suggest either a series of well-timed coincidences or some larger destiny. His interest in geology started in college, but wasn’t solidified until his parents happened to move to France.
“I stuck with it completely by chance,” Farquhar said about his degree in geology from Washington and Lee University.
“I was flying back and forth between France to visit my parents and I saw all of these features I had learned about, and all of a sudden it seemed as though it was something I wanted to learn more about. I could see the stuff all around me and it had so much information trapped inside of it.”
He stuck with it through a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1990, moving towards the field of geochemistry studying areas like temperature history and pressure history, showing how rocks are buried and then brought back to the surface over a period of time.
Like his undergrad studies, Farquhar was interested in the information inside the features that surrounded him on a daily basis.
“I moved to geochemistry for the same reasons,” he said. “I went to grad school and became very interested in how one could use the chemical composition to understand how they were formed.”
From Chicago, Farquhar received his PhD from the University of Alberta in 1995. From there, he was selected as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institute, working in Washington until 1997.
Around this time, a speaker came through while he was in his post-doctoral position and discussed the ways to apply geo-chemical research to real life issues. Farquhar began to question his pursuits in geochemistry, wrestling with the idea of studying rocks or doing something that was relevant, he said.
In 1997, Farquhar wrote a proposal to a fellowship concerning Martian meteorites. The timing, yet another coincidence in Farquhar’s career, was perfect. He wrote a proposal at the same time that NASA had a conference in which they thought they had found life on Mars, propelling his application to the top of the pool.
His proposal was accepted, and he began work on meteorites at the University of California, San Diego as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Chemist. He spent his time there working on something new.
“I wanted to try something different,” Farquhar said. “I decided to look for signatures of life on some of Earth’s oldest rocks.”
Chance struck yet again: his results were not what he had expected. He has seen similar results on Martian rocks, but didn’t think that these were possible on Earth.
“I actually thought I’d broken the instrument,” Farquhar said. “I came back the next day, redid the chemistry, and got the same result. I inadvertently found the possibility of the atmospheric signals trapped in a rock on earth.”
This was chemistry that would have only occurred in our earliest and most primitive atmosphere, he said, a signature that was there for the first two billion years of earth history and then disappeared.
In fact, Farquhar had discovered significant oxygen and sulfur isotopes in several meteorites from Mars. He was awarded the F. W. Clark Medal of the Geochemical Society and, in 2001, made the move to the University of Maryland.
“It was because of that lucky discovery that I got the job here and could continue doing research here,” Farquhar said, speaking about the university. “And the reason why I came to Maryland was because of ESSIC. A lot of my other options didn’t have the earth systems side and the geology/chemistry side.”
He was actually one of the initial hires to the Department of Geology, and spends half of his time as a Professor of Geology and half of his time at the university’s Earth System Sciences University center (ESSIC).
“My background is strongly geological and I’ve been spending the last years trying to work around earth system questions that try to trace wither chemistry or chemical biological signals between the atmosphere and the oceans,” Farquhar said.
His work ties well in to the research done at ESSIC. Over the past three or four years, Farquhar has studied ways to understand how organic sulfur compounds are formed by organisms in the oceans. These compounds then get released in to the sea water then the atmosphere, eventually playing a role in cloud formation.
So far, his research has only gotten him as far as the second step of the process, release from the organisms. He’s currently working on a way to track the compounds, which could take ten or twenty years. For Farquhar, and many other geologists, this isn’t a particularly long period of time.
“The difference between me and a lot of other people in ESSIC is the time scales in which we look at changes are over hundreds of millions to few billions of years, so that’s long compared to other people,” he said.
Farquhar’s work deals with chemical transformations that occurred in the early atmosphere, a very different time frame from many of the modern earth system models created at ESSIC.
“I would love to be able to work on something that was both modern, in the present day time frame, and also of regional and global significance,” he said. “Whether I can do that, or whether we can do that, or not is going to depend on whether we can find ways to make more measurements than we usually make or whether we can find a key signal that only requires a few measurements.”
Farquhar’s studies, however, do sometimes have significant modern impacts. He and his team have just started conducting a study on how the deeper waters in the Chesapeake Bay become sulfidic, and as a result become toxic to larger bottom dwelling organisms.
“We are studying how much sulfide is produced, how much is released in to the water, and if there are things that control it, like the temperature of the water in the main stem or some of the smaller rivers that come off it,” he said. “That is the kind of thing that could be useful, seeing how the Bay will respond if there are changes in things like weather or runoff.”
Between his research, field work, and time spent teaching at the university, Farquhar has received a flurry of other awards and appointments. In 2007, he became the Professeur Invité at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and has spoken at UCLA's Department of Earth and Space Sciences; the Tokyo Institute of Technology; the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a NASA-funded institute in Houston, Texas; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; LGGE Grenoble and many other institutions.
He has also been a Visiting Research Scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany; a Fellow of the Hanse Wissenschaftskolleg in Delmenhorst, Germany; and Guest Investigator at the Biological Institute of the University of Southern Denmark.
In 2004, he received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation for his research on "Earth System Science Perspective on the Sulfur Cycle.” He received the F. W. Clark Medal of t
he Geochemical Society in 2000, and was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008.
Most recently, Farquhar has been named as a Fellow of the Geochemical Society, an honorary title for outstanding scientists for major contributions to the field of geochemistry. According to the Geochemical Society website, the fellowship and other awards are given "as part of our mission to encourage the application of chemistry to the solution of geological and cosmological problems."
The Fellowship will take Farquhar to Australia in June and August, where he will have access a special instrument called an IN probe to measure the composition and abundance of the isotopes in a particular atom.
The instrument can measure the abundances of different types of sulfur, which Farquhar works with specifically, so he plans to work on measuring abundances of the rarest form of sulfur, he said.
“These are the ones that are of early atmospheric significance,” Farquhar said. “It’s basically what we do here but they can work on much smaller samples. One of the things that we’ll be doing is we’ll be working at sulfides and seeing if it’s consistent with tests done before it.”
Farquhar’s appointment to the Fellowship once again came down to coincidence. While others of this type of instrument exist in Wisconsin, Los Angeles, Japan, China, Sweden and France, Farquhar already had connections to the one in Australia.
“It just so happened that there was a fellowship program in Australia with people who I had spoken with and worked with there,” Farquhar said. “I went to give a conference, spoke with them and learned about their interests, and I’d been an advocate of all of the labs using these types of instruments. It was clear that I had some ideas for projects and they were interested in developing techniques to measure the early earth.”
The fellowship doubles as a research opportunity and an opportunity to connect with other scientists in the same field. For Farquhar, each fellowship position means a new experience.
“It’s always a little bit scary because you don’t know what to expect. I teach a masters class, interact with people there, and they do expect research results,” he said. “It’s international collaboration.”
Farquhar has had many other international experiences, as well as travel experience within the United States. Geochemical field work varies a lot, he said, but there are numerous projects that take them out in the field.
Last year he worked on projects in Yellowstone, trying to study how sulfur was transformed by either organisms or normal chemical processes. There are also more local projects, which include collecting samples from marshes in Delaware.
Farquhar travels internationally for conferences and teaching, and will be in Holland for a conference in biology in April.
“As a result of a lot of the work that we’ve done we spend time in Denmark and in Northern Germany and in France,” he said. “We have moved around, a lot of my moving has been to different labs to learn new techniques and to teach new techniques.”
Farquhar teaches when he is at home as well. It’s perhaps one of the few positions he didn’t land by chance.
“You do a post doc and you get a teaching position,” said Farquhar. To him, being a professor is the most difficult aspect of this career, but also the most rewarding.
“I learn so much from these guys because they find out something new, they come tell me, and sometimes it’s completely the opposite of what I thought it was going to be,” he said. For a scientist as accomplished as Farquhar, this means a lot.
“I learn so much teaching; I learn so much from the students.”