My Research Philosophy

The principal focus of my research is to evaluate the connections between mineralogy and crustal evolution. I capitalize on those connections with geochemical microanalysis to understand dynamic crustal and tectonic processes. My work thus far has been characterized by international, multidisciplinary collaborations working to solve complex geologic problems. The predominant theme of my research is to interrogate igneous rocks and their constituent minerals for their chemical, thermal, and structural histories. I study the effects of pressure, temperature, composition, and time (P-T-X-t) on mineral chemistry, preservation of primary magmatic signature, and the relationship between whole-rock chemistry and mineralogy. I believe strongly in the importance of improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in geoscience; my goal as a mentor is to recruit, support, and uplift undergraduate and graduate students from historically underrepresented backgrounds in geoscience.

My goal in research is to approach complex problems with the knowledge that, as humans, we tend toward bias and presumption in the interpretation of our data. I employ rigorous skepticism and thoughtful moderation as I attack scientific questions at the frontiers of geologic research. I believe taking a humble approach to exciting, complex problems not only serves to produce high-quality research in the moment, but also sets strong foundations as we enter a new era of analytical and computational capabilities in the geosciences.

Current Research
Geothermobarometry with Quartz and Zircon
Schematic illustration of a transcrustal, vertically heterogeneous magma system where crystal growth can occur at multiple stages of magma fractionation, segregation, cooling, recharge, and emplacement or eruption. My research asks: where do quartz and zircon crystallize in the crustal column, and what does that tell us about crustal thickness?

Titanium (Ti) is incorporated into the quartz lattice as a function of temperature and pressure, and into zircon as a function of temperature. By measuring the Ti concentration of a quartz inclusion inside a zircon crystal, and the Ti concentration of the zircon itself, the temperature and pressure of crystallization can be constrained. This relationship has been experimentally calibrated and can be applied to a variety of systems to reconstruct the depth of crystallization of a magma, and by extension the minimum crustal thickness at the time of crystallization can be identified. In combination with U-Pb zircon ages, this method offers the opportunity to reconstruct the P-T-t paths of a suite of magmatic rocks, and potentially aid in reconstructing crustal thickness through time. I am currently working on applying this method to Lhasa terrane granitoids to reconstruct the pre- and syn-collisional crustal crustal thickness of Southern Tibet. I use oxygen isotopes and textural analyses to understand complicating factors that may modify the primary magmatic signature in these inclusion-host pairs.

This work is currently in prep, with plans to submit by the end of 2019.

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The importance of barometry (depth) in reconstructing the history of an orogen. We can only directly reconstruct crustal thickness if we can identify the pressure (depth) of magmatism.
Zircon Geochemistry and Geochronology

Zircon (ZrSiO4) acts as a time capsule, recording the unique geochemical, temperature, and pressure history of its host rock(s) as it grew. Its durability and resistance to chemical resetting makes it an ideal tool for a wide variety of applications in igneous and metamorphic petrology. Zircons contain micron-scale growth histories that can be interrogated using high spatial resolution in-situ methods such as secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS).

I am currently working on reconstructing the crustal thickness and magmatic inflation history of southern Tibet before and during the India-Asia collision, using zircons from Gangdese Batholith granitoids. I use a combination of U-Pb ages, Ti-in-zircon thermometry, and Lu-Hf isotope geochemistry to reconstruct the time-temperature-composition history of magmatic rocks in the southern Lhasa terrane, which can be linked to the structural development of the Tibetan crust throughout collision.

Alexander et al., 2019, JGR-Solid Earth (accepted 17 October 2019).

epsHf in zircon RAFC v3
Schematic representation of the effect of crustal thickness and magma recharge on the chemistry of zircon growth zones. A zircon grown in a magma body in a thin crust (left) will have a homogeneous, juvenile magmatic signal, as the country rock is too cold to assimilate appreciably with the magma. Periodic magma recharge will extend the time during which zircon can grow and enable more assimilation, leading to a heterogeneous and overall more crust-like chemical signature. Zircon grown in a deep magma body will have the opportunity for greater assimilation, leading to monotonic chemical zoning, from juvenile to crust-like from core to rim. Recharge further enables assimilation, with long residence times and frequent recharge leading to almost 100% isotopic assimilation of the country rock. Zircon Hf and O isotopic compositions may therefore function as an indirect proxy for crustal thickness.

As the world’s most durable material, zircons also serve as our only record for the conditions found on earliest Earth, in the Hadean eon (4.56-4.00 Ga). Because the oldest whole rocks found on Earth are no older than 4.03 Ga, detrital zircons are our only lens into the geologic history of the Earth prior to that time. Previous research by the Harrison group at UCLA has identified evidence of subduction, felsic crust, and a hydrosphere as early as 4.3-4.4 Ga (Hopkins et al., 2008; Harrison, 2009; Bell et al., 2011; etc.). Along with collaborators at UCLA, MIT, and the University of Cambridge, I am currently assisting with a project seeking to understand the formation of the Earth’s geodynamo (i.e., the onset of the Earth’s magnetic field). Analyses of carefully-selected Hadean zircons from Jack Hills, Australia suggests there is no evidence of a primary paleomagnetic signal in Hadean zircons.

Tang et al., PNAS, 2019

Borlina et al., 2019, Science Advances (accepted 15 October 2019).

Cathodoluminesence (CL) image of a 4219±5 Ma zircon from Jack Hills, Western Australia. Changes in color and brightness are reflective of chemical changes as the zircon grew. Note the discontinuity between the dark core with vertical zoning and the surrounding brighter layer: this grain likely underwent multiple magmatic and/or metamorphic recycling events.
Future Research Interests
  • The Andes as a modern analog to the precollisional Gangdese arc, including comparison of whole-rock and zircon geochemistry and geothermobarometry.
  • Critical analysis of indirect geochemical proxies (“pseudobarometers”) and their utility/limitations for understanding crustal thickness and magmatic differentiation histories of igneous rocks.
  • Comparison of Ti temperature and pressure signatures in zircon-quartz inclusion-host pairs from volcanic, plutonic, and high-grade metamorphic terranes with well-constrained crustal thicknesses and/or P-T-X-t histories.
  • Experimental and empirical calibration of Ti activity in rutile-undersaturated rocks (with applications to Ti-in-zircon thermometry, Ti-in-quartz thermobarometry, etc.)
Volcán Tungurahua, Baños, Ecuador, 2018. Last erupted in 2006; note the path of a nuée ardente (dense pyroclastic flow) from the peak of the cone down the flank, all the way down to the road at bottom left.