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Peir Pufahl: geological detective, world-class researcher and mentor

June 11, 2019

Like a detective, Dr. Peir Pufahl unlocks mysteries.

“Sedimentary rocks are laid down in horizontal beds, and each bed is like a page in a book,” says Pufahl, Professor of Sedimentary Geology, Earth and Environmental Science. “But 85 percent of the pages in the book are missing. That’s missing time, so we really are detectives, because we only get 10 to 15 percent of those pages to interpret to understand how the Earth works.”

As a geologist, Pufahl studies sedimentary rocks, in particular limestone, as a way of understanding Earth history from hundreds of millions of years ago. The oxygenation of the planet occurred in two big pulses, one that occurred about 2.5 billion years ago and one about 700 million years ago. “Much of my work in Brazil and Australia has focused on those two pulses,” he says. “My masters and even undergraduate students have been able to go to these places and contribute to science on an international level.”

Pufahl is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Sedimentology, which is the top-ranked journal in his field. He is also the sole international scientific advisor to Brazil’s Project Phosphate, a federal initiative aimed at discovering new phosphorus fertilizer ore bodies to feed Brazil’s growing population. In 2016, he was a finalist for the Nova Scotia Discovery Award, Professional of Distinction.

“One of the reasons I came to Acadia was because it was obvious I could establish a world-class research program and have access to outstanding students,” he says. “That does not often happen where a place is small and gives you that personalized learning environment.”

When we talk about opportunity, the sky's the limit, especially when you have such a beautiful space to work from and to allow those collaborations to happen.”

Opening up exciting opportunities

For a scientist such as Pufahl, the science complex renovations and the new Huestis Innovation Pavilion offer exciting opportunities. “My new laboratory for the study of fertilizer and iron ores is world class, with instrumentation that is truly unique in Canada. It will provide a new training experience for undergraduate students while significantly enriching Acadia’s research ecosystem,” he says.

He sees the new Innovation Pavilion as a crucible for academia and industry collaboration. “When we talk about opportunity, the sky’s the limit, especially when you have such a beautiful space to work from and to allow those collaborations to happen.”

Pufahl and his research group are looking at the formation of fertilizer or phosphorus.

“Some of these rocks that were deposited during the two oxygenation pulses on the very early Earth are phosphate rich. Phosphorus is a finite resource, and some people speculate that in 50 to 75 years we will not have enough phosphorus to fertilize our agricultural lands to feed ourselves,” he says. “So one of the things my group does – undergraduate, graduate students, and post-docs – is help companies and governments look and explore for new resources of phosphorus so that the Earth’s burgeoning population can feed itself in the coming years.”

The researchers are working with Nova Scotia companies to develop new geochemical techniques to analyze ores. They’re also looking at direct application fertilizers – ground-up rock phosphate – and how quickly phosphorus can leach into soils to fertilize crops.

“Direct application fertilizer is organic,” he says, “and with the growth in the organic food sector in the Annapolis Valley and elsewhere in Canada, this kind of research is practical. It helps us locally as well as nationally.”

Teasing out the best in people

“I absolutely love teaching and research,” Pufahl adds. “I couldn’t do one without the other, because the research keeps me excited about my field. We’re making discoveries on subjects and about things that are meaningful. When I supervise, or when I teach, the most important thing to me is to tease out the very best in people, to really show them what they’re capable of. They end up surprising themselves.”

What Acadia does so differently and so well is to focus on the whole person, he thinks.

“It’s not just about the academics, but it’s about all the other pieces of the puzzle that make you a complete person. And I think by the time they graduate, they’re ready for the world,” he says. “They can compete on an international level, on a national level, and they can excel.”