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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 UT. 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 UT, 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 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 many 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 UT Office of Research & Engagement (ORE) review committee has been pleased to note that the PGI has demonstrated extraordinary research productivity during the last decades.


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 in April 2016. The PGI gives awards for best research projects and best conference presentations by its graduate students. Nick Dygert 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 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 UT. 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.  Former PGI Director Larry Taylor initiated the concept of a planetarium for UT, 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.