Vetlesen Science Prize Celebrated at Columbia Gala

July 1, 2015

Stephen Sparks spoke after receiving the Vetlesen Prize. Photo: Michael DiVito


Michael Purdy, right, Columbia University executive vice president for research, presented Stephen Sparks with the Vetlesen Prize — a gold medal and a check for $250,000. Photo: Michael DiVito



Stephen Sparks, one of the world’s foremost experts on volcanoes, received the Vetlesen Prize for his groundbreaking scientific work at a ceremony held June 24 at Columbia University. Two-hundred-fifty people attended the formal gathering in the Low Library Rotunda.

A professor at the University of Bristol, Sparks has produced many discoveries that have improved our practical understanding of volcanic hazards. His study of the 1995 eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano on the Caribbean island of Monserrat led to a better understanding of how some eruptions can turn explosive, and he pioneered methods for assessing the dangers posed by volcanic eruptions, helping governments to improve decision-making regarding evacuations and rebuilding.

The Vetlesen Prize is given for outstanding achievement in the sciences resulting in a clearer understanding of Earth, its history, or its relation to the universe. The prize was established at Columbia University by the Vetlesen Foundation in 1959 and consists of a gold medal and a $250,000 prize.

Its namesake, Georg Unger Vetlesen, a native of Norway who emigrated to the United States, built his career around ships and the sea. He played important roles with the U.S. Navy and the Norwegian resistance during World War II, led the Norwegian American Line and helped found Scandinavian Airlines System Inc.

There was a special connection between Vetlesen and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: The Vetlesens bought the 202-foot, three-masted schooner VEMA in 1934, and the ship, acquired by Columbia in 1953, took Lamont researchers across the oceans and became one of the world’s most
productive oceanographic research vessels.


From left: Michael Purdy, executive vice president for research, Columbia University; Jean Jouzel, the 2013 Vetlesen winner; this year’s winner, Stephen Sparks; Sean Solomon, director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute; and Ambrose Monell, president and treasurer of the Vetlesen Foundation. Photo: Michael DiVito


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