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Planetary Geosciences Institute

The Planetary Geosciences Institute (PGI), basically a virtual institute, was established in 1993 and is located within the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, here at UTK. The goals of the PGI are to bring the planetary faculty, postdocs, students, and international collaborators into a unit of endeavor, and includes facilitating research in planetary geosciences at UTK, as well as educating K-12 teachers, students, and the general public in east Tennessee about the importance of planetary sciences and engineering.


PGI consists of six full-time planetary faculty*, four part-time planetary faculty**, and several post-doctoral research fellows, and numerous graduate students. The group has achieved a high level of research productivity during the past many years. The faculty, during the last five (5) years have received >$8 million in external funding. The majority of external funding comes from NASA and NSF, as well as several collaborative projects with other universities such as Cornell, Brown Univ., Univ. of Central Florida, Caltech, University of Arizona, and Arizona State University. The faculty, post-docs, and graduate students have beaucoup peer-reviewed publications, including many in high-impact publications in journals such as Science and Nature. The group also has numerous invited seminars and conference presentations. Importantly, PGI continues to add new contributing faculty members, and overall, the center appears to be maturing nicely. The UTK Office of Research & Engagement (ORE) review committee has been pleased to note that the PGI has demonstrated extraordinary research productivity during the last decades.

* Profs. Hap McSween, Jeff Moersch, Larry Taylor; Assoc. Profs. Devon Burr, Josh Emery, and Molly McCanta.

** Profs. Chris Fedo, Linda Kah; Asst. Prof. Anna Szynkiewicz; Research Professor Brad Thomson.


The PGI performs a variety of activities to enhance undergraduate and graduate education. Weekly Brown Bag lunches are organized to discuss current topics in planetary geosciences and also host outside speakers, such as Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, this last April.2016. The PGI gives awards for best research projects and best conference presentations by its graduate students. Larry is the UT Director of the NASA-funded Tennessee Space Grant Consortium (TSGC), with goals of University and K-12 school space outreach in east Tennessee and to educate future planetary scientists and engineers.  Paul Lewis of Physics & Astronomy is of our associate members, and partially supported by these funds. In addition, the TSGC funds are used to support several undergrad and grad student scholarships, as well as travel to professional meetings, small research projects, seminar speakers, and outreach activities of participants in space science/engineering.

The PGI supports several design challenges for undergraduates.  PGI and UT Aerospace Engineering, in MABE, have supported student participation in NASA’s Reduce Gravity Program. This program gives students the opportunity to design reduced gravity experiments and fly them aboard NASA’s DC-29 “Weightless Wonder” (i.e. “the vomit comet”) at Ellington Field in Houston. PGI also supports the design and construction and race of a “Moon Buggy” as an extra-curricular activity for science/engineering students. This project at Marshall Space Flight Center, started in 1994 by Taylor, is for international competition at the NASA annual Moon Buggy Race at the Space and Rocket Museum in Huntsville. Undergraduate participation seems to be high as they have formed an official UT student organization, Aerospace Education and Research Organization (AERO), for all undergraduates interested in space endeavors.


The PGI is involved in several community outreach activities. It works closely with the Space Outreach efforts of the Department of Physics and Astronomy to meet its service goals. In 1998, PGI helped establish a NASA Teacher’s Resource Distribution Center at UTK. This unit offers K-12 and college teachers free access to a wide variety of NASA-sponsored teaching materials. The Center is located in the Nielson Physics building and directed by Paul Lewis, who is partial supported by our funds. Paul is our “Space Outreach Guru” who spreads the word to the eastern Tennessee community.  Larry Taylor initiated the concept of a planetarium for UTK, and with the support of Paul and Soren Sorenson, and the Earth & Space Sciences Planetarium opened in the spring of 2013.  The planetarium is located in the Nielson Physics building, and was initiated and partially supported in construction by PGI.  In general, we emphasize some of the “fun” service and education activities performed by our group (e.g. planetarium, TN teaching resources, ‘vomit comet’, moon buggy race).

Summary and Recommendations

The PGI center has as research members several well-funded, highly research-productive faculty. The institute leverages their funding to support a variety of wonderful educational and service activities, as well as provide an extraordinary training environment for students and post-doctoral fellows. Overall, our PGI center has continuously received outstanding evaluations by the ORE review committee, who enthusiastically supports the continued activities of the PGI.


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