Groundbreaker

Geology professor Claudia Mora is at the forefront of two of UT's new Centers of Excellence. Keeping her there is the challenge for the cash-strapped program.

Dr. Claudia Mora fairly radiates good health and contentment on this bright July afternoon, even while cooped up in her office in the University of Tennessee's ancient geology building across from Ayres Hall on the Hill. Reclining in a squeaky swivel chair and casually dressed in black slacks and blue tank-top, the late 30-something geology professor seems relaxed, unflappable as she sorts through a voluminous backlog of email. Her hair pulled back in a haphazard ponytail, her skin a golden-red, she's enjoying the afterglow of a lengthy beach-and-sun vacation that stretched a full week longer than planned because of scuttled travel arrangements; Mora is obviously none the worse for the extended sojourn.

"I squeezed some work in there, too," Mora tells of the trip that took her first to her parents' home in clement New Mexico, then to Washington, D.C., and finally the shores of Maine. "The beach stay is why I look so healthy; normally, I'm pasty and stressed-out."

Mora has other reasons to be content; she just received her full professorship in the university's geology department after 12 years at UT. ("I guess that means I'm doing my job," she says with a sunny chuckle.) She's also a key research figure in no less than two of the school's 15 recently-announced "centers of excellence."

Brainchild of the hastily departed UT head J. Wade Gilley, the centers program is a multi-million dollar research initiative intended to heighten the university's research profile by nurturing a number of promising "centers," proposed research collectives in both the hard sciences and the humanities. The first nine centers, larger endeavors funded at $5 to $10 million each, were announced in winter; the second and last round, just announced, will be smaller in scale, most of the chosen proposals funded at no more than $500,000.

Mora is a rising star in the university's ambitious new research climate. She helped craft the proposals for both of the centers in which she will participate, one of which holds considerable promise in the realm of environmental analysis and global environmental change, the other in determining the age of materials, both man-made and earthen, that date back hundreds of thousands of years.

But her ascension, as well as that of other capable young UT researchers, may be stymied by any of several troubling circumstances—the departure of centers' champion Gilley in the wake of a scandal, budget crunches, and poor fiscal foresight that has witnessed all of the

new centers' programs receiving a fraction of the funding they were promised at the outset. And Mora's own future as a (hopefully) prominent researcher will be determined as much by the relevant outcomes as it will by her own talent and tenacity.

When Claudia Mora was a child, her mother wanted nothing more than to see her daughter grow up an artist, perhaps a poet; applied geology and the study of global environmental change were decidedly not what she had mind.

"She was disappointed when I became a scientist," Mora smiles. She's standing this afternoon in one of the two labs she oversees on the floor below her office. In the middle of the room is a curious and bizarrely compelling layering of delicately molded glass conformations, tube on obelisk on parabola, the apparent union of a mad scientist's chemistry set-up and a modern multi-media sculpture. "When she saw my glass vacuum lines, she decided I was an artist after all; as you can see, it's very Rube Goldberg-esque."

Those ornately crafted glass shapes were assembled by Mora herself; in reality, they serve to extract gases and other substances from rocks and minerals. In this dark and cramped workspace and in the brighter, roomier one across the hall, Mora and her students exercise many of the functions necessary to the work of the aforementioned fledgling centers.

The Initiative in Global Environmental Change, which consists of eight faculty members spanning three departments, will combine the methodologies of geologists, geographers and ecologists in figuring and even predicting the progression of global change. Says Mora, "It's a whole-is-greater-than-sum-of parts team. We want to pool our expertise."

The smaller of her two workspaces, the so-called stable isotope lab, is key to such analysis, equipped as it is to extract and analyze isotopes—separate permutations of a single element—from rock samples. Her fanciful glass-tube structure is more precisely referred to as the "extraction lab."

In essence, the difference between two isotopes of the same element (two separate hydrogen isotopes, two separate oxygen isotopes, etc.) is the number of neutrons (uncharged particles, as opposed to protons and electrons) in the atomic structure. The neutron count gives each separate isotope of a single element a different atomic weight than its fellows.

Mora says certain environmental and atmospheric conditions favor the formation of one isotope over another through time. The presence of a given isotope can therefore provide clues that tell of the environmental conditions in a particular region in eons past.

"They're (isotopes) like chemical fingerprints," Mora says. "Some environmental processes may discriminate against heavier carbon isotopes, for instance. And the carbon ratios in organic material help determine what kind of foliage, ecosystem, even the type of climate present in an area."

Through this process of isotope analysis, researchers like Mora can look at present-day soil chemistry and determine environmental and atmospheric conditions as distant as 400 million years ago. Those conditions, in turn, shed light on the ecosystem of a particular era, revealing in a gradual, jigsaw fashion, the interconnections between geology and meteorology and ecology. "This is where our understanding of global change will truly come from," Mora says.

Claudia Mora was bred in New Mexico, and she obtained her B.S. at UNM. She continued her education with an M.A. at Rice College and a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin; all her credentials were obtained in geology. "If that seems like a long time, it was—11 years of college," she says.

In her late 20s, she met future husband Lee Riciputi, whom she married two weeks before moving to East Tennessee and her position at UT. With Riciputi working as an isotope chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the couple have nurtured two daughters, eight-year-old Shaina and five-year-old Eliana. During her recent break from university life, Mora took the girls sight-seeing in D.C., a venture that taught them an early lesson in the realities of civic life. While visiting the Jefferson Memorial, she and the girls were forced to leave the premises with no explanation—an action she then discovered was prompted by the procession of a motorcade bearing U.S. President George W. Bush.

"There were lots of men in suits with little curly-q's in their ears hustling us off," says Mora. "I was just talking about how all men are created equal with the girls when this happened, so I thought that was pretty ironic. They learned then that some men are more equal than others."

Mora is an easygoing, casual sort, prone to wearing shorts and worn jeans around her moderately messy third-floor office, hospitable to strange journalists and woebegone grad students alike. ("That's what grad students do; it always sounds deadly serious, like they're quitting school, or they're suicidal," Mora whispers, after one student darts into her office with a plea for immediate help. "But it never turns out to be anything very significant.")

Still, she's also passionate, about her work and about her social and political ideals. She digresses at length with a chatty reporter on the need for a state income tax to buttress the anemic funding of education at all levels.

The Center for Archaeometry and Geochronology is unique in that it holds promise in disciplines outside the realm of hard science; the center's eight faculty members are spread across five departments, including Classics and History as well as Anthropology, Nuclear Engineering and Geology.

The roughly half-million dollars now earmarked for the center will help fund the development of analytical facilities to determine the age of materials, including both rocks and other natural phenomena and man-made artifacts as well.

Mora explains that the geologist's methodologies in the realm of age determination—chiefly radiocarbon dating and luminescence testing—can be applied, for instance, in determining the age or authenticity of a historical treasure, perhaps a Ming Dynasty vase or the Shroud of Turin.

"Age determination is a critical part of nearly all science," says Mora. "And right now, we (at UT) have to pay through the nose to get that kind of analysis done somewhere else. There are no such facilities in Tennessee, or even in the whole Southeast."

To Mora's way of thinking, the centers program bestows its greatest contribution in its melding of seemingly unrelated disciplines, in connecting the dots and its enabling the university's far-flung resources to recombine and form a greater whole. "We have resources here we haven't fully exploited, largely because of a lack of funds for cross-talk between departments. With the right funding, we can have the analytical facilities we might have once looked to other research institutions to provide."

Mora admits that the substantial gap between the reality of centers' funding and the resulting dashed expectations will be problematic in many respects; she estimates the shortfall will effectively scuttle perhaps 50 percent of the plans of each of the centers in which she has taken part.

Those "missing" funds will be most apparent in the recruiting of new faculty and personnel, an area many faculty members believe is paramount in advancing current school programs to the next level of research excellence.

But she also says the second wave of centers had more warning, more preparation for the harsh truths of bureaucratic funding efforts than the first. "There were no surprises for us," she says. "They knew coming in there were going to be budget issues this time. And we had an idea how many centers would be funded.

"We used our eight-balls and our Ouija boards to determine what they would most likely accept," she continues. "It seems like a shell game, but if it is, it's a shell game with the best of intentions. I think they took the books, shook the funds through the screens and took the nuggets that were left. They were looking for the extra feather in an unstuffed mattress, whatever bits were at the bottom of the barrel.

"I believe the university has basically done the best it can with very limited resources. And in the process, it's rejuvenated in many of us a sense of mission, of commitment to the university."

The question now is whether the university can return that commitment in kind.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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