Tidal Wave: UM Researcher Joins Two Others in Receiving Prestigious Science Grant

UM Associate Professor Hilary Martens is one of three UM researchers to earn National Science Foundation CAREER awards this year. The awards are given to promising early career faculty members to provide a foundation of leadership integrating education with research.

MISSOULA – From her University of Montana lab in landlocked Missoula, Montana, geosciences researcher Hilary Martens has garnered an international reputation for research ciphering the interplay of large bodies of water and the Earth and its impact on everything from drought to volcanoes.

In just a few short years, her findings have generated a number of large and prestigious  grants to further her research, including her most recent from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program.

Called CAREER awards, these grants – Martens’ was $689,069 –  are given to promising early career faculty members to provide a foundation of leadership integrating education with research.

Martens, associate professor in geosciences, is one of three UM researchers receiving CAREER awards this year. Evolutionary geneticist Brandon S. Cooper earned a $1.5 million grant to study cellular-level organisms that can impact public health, and atmospheric chemist Lu Hu earned $800,000 to study harmful volatile organic compounds in wildfire smoke.

“Receiving three NSF CAREER awards for new faculty is quite an achievement,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “Roughly 300 such awards are granted each year, and universities are lucky to have one award. The fact that three UM faculty members received this recognition is a testament to the quality of faculty that the University has been able to attract.”

These days Martens and her research team study the ebb and flow of ocean tides and the massive forces they exert on the Earth due to their weight, which actively changes the shape of our planet. By tracking the daily, centimeter-scale changes in Earth’s shape, the research can provide new information on the internal structure of our planet with implications for its formation and evolution, as well as surface hazards such as earthquakes.

“This new funding will allow us to advance our models so we can account for regional variations in structure,” said Martens, noting that some regions of South America, for example, are particularly stable thanks to areas called cratons. These cratons resist tectonic forces leading to large earthquakes.

“We are hoping to shed more light on the density of cratons,” Martens said.

At UM, she directs the Martens Lab, a geophysics research group that studies earthquakes in Montana and the interactions between the Earth and its water surfaces. Her extensive background in space science, planetary science and geophysics began at UM, where she earned undergraduate degrees in music and physics as a Presidential Leadership Scholar in UM’s Davidson Honors College. She went on to earn master’s degrees in geophysics from the University of Cambridge, University College London and the California Institute of Technology.

While earning her doctorate in geophysics in 2016 from the California Institute of Technology, Martens began her initial research into the relationship between ocean tides and changes in the Earth’s shape.

“I love studying earth systems and space science, and this combines the best of both,” she said. “Ocean tides are influenced by the moon and sun.”

In 2021, she received a $443,627 from NASA’s Earth Surface and Interior Division to conduct further studies on the structure of the Earth’s interior using GPS observations of ocean tides.

That award was preceded by a $1.4 million NSF grant in 2020 as part of a multidisciplinary team to track changes in the shape of the Earth from the storage and flow of water in mountain watersheds.

For that project, Martens’ team uses GPS to track changes in the shape of the Earth from the storage and flow of water. GPS receivers can determine sagging of Earth’s surface under the weight of water to the accuracy of 1 mm, and the team uses that information to estimate the total amount of water added or removed from a watershed daily or over a period of years.

“Understanding mountain watersheds is crucial, because they serve as critical reservoirs of fresh water for human communities and other natural ecosystems worldwide,” she said.

In addition to research dollars, CAREER grants come with funding for important educational work, Martens said. She will use funding for enhancing student access to the Griz Shared Computer Cluster, a super computer developed for computational processes and models like those that Martens uses in her research.

“We want to provide a sandbox of sorts for students who want to get started in high-performance computing or who need it for their research and education,” Martens said. “Access to this computer gives our students unique opportunities to advance their studies.”


Contact: Hilary Martens, UM associate professor of geosciences, 406-243-6855, hilary.martens@umontana.edu.