Larson receives lofty $2.8 million NSF grant

Lake Superior will become a second classroom and laboratory for Minnesota State University, Mankato Professor, Co-Director of MSU’s EARTH Systems Laboratory and Director of Earth Sciences Phillip Larson. 

Larson recently received a $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use the geology, geography and geomorphology of Lake Superior to help advance understanding about different processes in the geosciences.

The “Frontier Research in Earth Sciences” grant lasts five years and is part of a multi-university collaboration between MSU, Harvard University and several colleges in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Larson explained that the universities will be working toward trying to understand the geologic history of Lake Superior’s basin, how the lake came to be and how Minnesota landscapes formed.

“[All the universities] will be working on a lot of things related to how the glaciers impacted the lake and how the glaciers leaving that lake led to the lake spilling out down over rivers. We’re also going to be trying to explain how those waterfalls and bedrock canyons came to be and why they’re there,” Larson said. “There’s a lot of different aspects to it.”

Larson heard about the grant through NSF as it’s where scientists go to find funding for research for various programs. Larson said the application for the grant was grueling, especially with the size of the grant at stake.

“My colleague at the University of Minnesota helped coordinate a lot of the process. It’s a lot harder for professors [at smaller universities] to juggle [the responsibilities of applying,]” Larson said. 

When Larson found out he’d received the grant in early August, his initial reaction to hearing about the grant was a mix of shock and anxiety.

“It’s a big project and a lot of money and typically with NSF, you don’t get it on the first try. You write a proposal, get some reviewer comments and resubmitting. We got it on the first try and we were totally not expecting it,” Larson said. “It kind of caught us by surprise.”

Of the $2.8 million, MSU received $700,000. NSF gave MSU $616,000 for the first three years and, if Larson shows significant progress, the other $84,000 will be given in the last two years. Larson said receiving the grant is a humbling experience.

“There are folks from University of Minnesota Duluth and University Wisconsin-Superior who are right on the lake, but out of a $2.8 million project, I’ve got $700,000. There’s a lot of work on my shoulders,” Larson said.

The grant money will go toward funding students who are actively participating in the research, specifically their tuition, stipend and travel expenses for trips. Larson explained that the grant will allow students to gain field experience instead of reading about topics in a textbook.

“Field based approaches that get people out there learning by doing activities is by far the most effective way to gain knowledge but also to encourage enthusiasm and passion for what you’re doing,” Larson said. “I go after these grants to have these research projects that I can drag students into and show them what we do instead of talking about it in a class.”

Larson wants the MSU community to be aware of how interesting Minnesota and Wisconsin are in regard to the Lake Superior basin and encourages students to reach out to him should they have any questions.

“Besides the geoscience, there’s lot of cultural landscapes too. Native peoples have been there for thousands of years and part of our project writes them into it. There’s lots of really cool projects that are a part of [the grant] that appeal to a lot of people,” Larson said. “I’d be happy to talk to anybody about anything.”

Header Photo: MSU Professor Phillip Larson received a $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation that will go towards funding student’s research on Lake Superior’s geology and geography. (Courtesy photo)

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