The Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in Environmental Science and Geoscience, co-sponsored by Geological Survey Ireland and Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, was awarded to Professor Jennifer McElwain on Monday, 4 April 2022.
Professor Jennifer C. McElwain, MRIA
Citation on the awarding of the Academy
Gold Medal in the Environmental Sciences and Geosciences
Professor Jennifer C. McElwain is an
internationally recognised pioneer in the reconstruction of paleo-atmospheric
composition using fossil plant proxies. For over two decades her research has
focused on the interface between the biological and geological sciences, where
she has crafted a unique niche as a renowned palaeobotanist, bringing palaeoecological
insights to contemporary plant science and an Earth system perspective to
palaeobotany. She has achieved this by positioning her work at the forefront of
experimentally testing and applying paleo-CO2 proxies to intervals
of past environmental and biotic change.
Professor McElwain has spearheaded the
development of novel paleo-ecophysiological traits that can now be applied to
fossil plants to test the role of vegetation change and the evolution of plant
function in forcing critical shifts in Earth system processes. Her research has
delivered major breakthroughs in understanding the coupled evolution of plants
and the atmosphere on geological timescales with a major focus on atmospheric
CO2 and O2.
The application of the stomatal proxy
method and its continued refinement and experimental testing by McElwain and
her research team have revolutionised understanding of changing atmospheric CO2
through Earth history. McElwain’s work has been underpinned by coupled
perspectives in Earth system science and plant ecophysiology, ecology and evolution.
Without McElwain’s continued improvement and application of the plant-based CO2
proxy to climate critical intervals in Earth history such as biological mass
extinction events, oceanic anoxic events and extreme volcanic episodes,
subsequent studies on the geological causes and biological consequences of
major global change events would not have been possible. Similarly, advances in
understanding of the factors and processes driving the long-term carbon cycle,
climate and ice sheet/sea-level dynamics through Earth history have been shaped
by McElwain’s major contribution to the baseline CO2 record over
highly dynamic climatic intervals such as the Late Pennsylvanian and
Eocene/Oligocene climate transition.
She has contributed to the global reach
of her discipline through leadership and chairing of international conferences,
invited commentary, interviews and via science-art collaborations and public
Professor McElwain has directed numerous
high-profile, multi-million-euro research teams/projects, she has successfully
mentored 14 post-doctoral fellows and 16 PhD students through these awards and
she has played a leading role in the establishment and funding of award-winning
national-scale experimental infrastructure in Ireland. She is a fellow of
Trinity College Dublin, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a President’s
Medal awardee of the Palaeontological Society.
Professor McElwain is a highly regarded
and innovative international leader in the field of palaeobiology. She holds
the 1711 full Professorial Chair of Botany at Trinity College Dublin, Trinity’s
oldest established Chair. She is the current Director of Trinity Botanic
Garden, Head of the Department of Botany and Chair of the Royal Irish Academy’s
Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee. She is the first female in
all four leadership roles.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Professor Jennifer McElwain, Dr Mary Canning, President of the Royal Irish Academy.
Dr Marie Cowan, Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, Prof. Jennifer McElwain, Trinity College Dublin, and Dr Brian McConnell, Geological Survey Ireland.
Photo credits: Johnny Bambury.