Timing is Everything: Dr. Georgina King, Geochronologist
Dr. Georgina King is an associate professor in the Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics at the University of Lausanne, where she leads the research group ICE: Interactions between Climate and Earth surface processes. As a geochronologist, she dates the ages of rocks, sediments, and geologic events, studying how and when environmental changes have occurred on Earth over the last few million years. Her research focuses on climatic shifts and their effect on the Earth’s surface in the Himalaya, Atacama Desert, Japanese Alps, and European Alps.
Growing up, Dr. King always enjoyed history (particularly English castles and heritage) and science. “When I was really little, I used to sketch robots that would solve problems, like helping with cleaning,” she shares. She also loved to read science fiction, particularly space operas like Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds. At school, she studied biology and geography, and considered pursuing archaeology or English literature before majoring in geography at the University of Oxford.
After completing her bachelor’s degree, Dr. King applied for a PhD position unsuccessfully. She then took a break and went snowboarding in St. Anton, Austria and Val Thorens, France. After a year, she knew she wanted to go back to school. She got her master’s in Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway/University College London and PhD in Earth Sciences at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
When Dr. King first learned about optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, she thought “this method sounds super dodgy,” but acknowledged its importance for understanding environmental changes during the Quaternary Period (the last 2.58 million years of Earth’s history). She explains that luminescence is “like a charged battery or a filled glass of water: if sediments are exposed to sunlight, this drains the battery or empties the glass.” After sediments are buried, electrons accumulate over time in the crystal lattice of the mineral grains. Dr. King collects sediment grains with a circular tube, protects them from light, and measures their luminescence to get at the amount of time since they were deposited. Dating helps her understand how and when landscapes formed, and how they respond to climatic changes.
Dr. King benefited from “fantastic” mentors and colleagues throughout her academic career. Her master’s supervisor invested time in discussing concepts with her so she could understand processes, gave timely feedback, and was available to her. Her PhD advisors were “less hands-on, but always positive and motivating.” They helped her discern signal from noise in her data and realize that “not everything is going to work, and that’s OK.” Other supervisors and colleagues inspired her to do rigorous analysis and quality control as well as “see the bigger picture: ask big questions and undertake projects with a larger impact.”
In her current role as a research group leader, Dr. King fosters a collegial environment and helps students become independent, confident scientists. She advises her students to read widely, and never underestimate the importance of previous studies. They should always keep the broader context of their research in mind, and “always be passionate—otherwise, there’s no point.”
Dr. King solves various time-related problems: both organizational (how to balance mentoring students, which takes time and patience, with doing her own research) and scientific (how to model processes that operate over millions of years on time scales humans can analyze). OSL dating is difficult to benchmark against other dating methods, which are either too young or too old. She is always looking for the “Goldilocks” dating method that is “just right” for her time periods of interest. “Timing is everything,” she says. “We need dates to understand how quickly landscape evolution processes happen.”
*Thank you to Dr. Georgina King for sharing her story with 500WS Bern-Fribourg. Click here to find out more about her research.