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UW Geology Professor Makes Most of Russian Collaboration

September 26, 2018
people in a room under construction
Members of the international team touring the renovations for a new laboratory at Siberia’s Tomsk State University (TSU) in 2017 are, from left: John Cottle, New Zealand; Svetlana Gertner, Russian translator; Platon Tishin, TSU professor; Kevin Chamberlain, UW professor; and Xia Ying, China. (Kevin Chamberlain Photo)

Science brought University of Wyoming geochronologist Kevin Chamberlain to Siberia, but it was the Russian people and culture that impressed him the most.

Chamberlain, a member of UW’s Department of Geology and Geophysics faculty, is part of a five-scientist international team recruited to help Tomsk State University (TSU) design and install a Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry facility -- in short, a laser to help scientists in the region determine the ages of rocks.

TSU, located in Tomsk, Russia, was awarded a megagrant from the Russian government worth 90 million rubles (about $1.3 million) to establish the laboratory, but involvement of foreign scientists was a necessary aspect of the grant. Chamberlain’s name was known in the field, and his work with a geochronology lab at UW made him a shoo-in. The only American scientist in the group, he is joined by experts from Canada, China, New Zealand and Spain.

Chamberlain twice visited TSU for extended stays and has provided consulting on a monthly basis through email. In the next few weeks, the laser installation will be finished, and the lab will begin analyzing standards to test and calibrate the instrument. It is expected to be fully functional when Chamberlain returns for his final visit in December.

Chamberlain’s visits have focused principally on the facility, but learning about and building relationships with the Russian people have been rewarding, according to him. Tomsk, with a population just over half a million people, is considered one of the oldest cities in central Siberia, while TSU is known as the oldest university east of the Ural Mountains. That rich tradition is something Chamberlain appreciates.

people standing in snow outside building
Members of the international team assembled at TSU in 2016 are, from left: Xia Ying, China; Richard Ernst, Canada; and Kevin Chamberlain, UW. (Kevin Chamberlain Photo)

“They have been great hosts,” Chamberlain says. “The Russian people have a culture, in my experience, of being very generous and warm. We were treated like honored guests.”

Chamberlain specifically noted the winter component of their culture. He grew up in upstate New York, so heavy snow is nothing new to him, but a Russian winter is unlike any other in terms of snowfall and temperatures. Tomsk also is nearly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, so the city doesn’t get much sunlight during periods of the year.

That doesn’t stop the Russians from enjoying the outdoors, though. One of Chamberlain’s visits corresponded with a winter festival in the city, during which many elaborate ice sculptures were constructed around TSU.

“From a cultural perspective, I appreciated learning about Siberia, specifically the Russian people and their scientists,” he says. “In terms of science, I’m proud that this facility is in a position to be successful and that I was able to help expand their infrastructure. My interest in the rocks that are in Siberia is ongoing.”

That interest, and this collaboration with the Russians and other international scientists, already are beginning to pay dividends. Chamberlain, along with the Canadian and TSU scientists, has been awarded a second grant from the Russian government to study Siberian rocks potentially associated with a mass extinction event. Chamberlain says the research is promising, but further study is needed.

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