Browse/search for people

Ms Caitlyn Witkowski


Current Research

My broad research interest lies in reconstructing past environments with the goal to ultimately better understand our near-future Earth. Specifically, I have developed organic geochemical tools to explore the relationship between different earth systems, e.g. between pCO2 and temperature, as well as study the effects of these climatic parameters on ecosystem biodiversity.

My current research project is to reconstruct Cenozoic climate change in China associated with Tibetan uplift and the biodiversification of terrestrial ecosystems. Today, the Himalaya/Tibet region provides more than 1.4 billion people with water and is a major biodiversity hotspot – but is also one of the most sensitive to development, habitat-species loss, and climate change. Less than 25% of its natural habitat is intact and 163 of its native species are globally threatened. The aim of this project is to untangle the multiple tectonic and climatic controls that led to the modern monsoon system and that led to (and sustains) the notably high biodiversity in the surrounding area. This project relies on strong UK-Chinese collaborations across a diverse team with climate modelling, palaeobotany, physical geology, and organic geochemistry approaches.

My role is to explore sedimentary archives in a transect from the Himalaya through mid-altitude Yunnan and sea-level southern China, with ages ranging from the Eocene through to the Pliocene (56-3 Ma). My primary focus is to reconstruct temperatures, as well as to trace changes to environmental regimes, altitude, and precipitation. This work, in combination with the information learned by the paleobotanical research, will be used to inform the models to ultimately better understand the evolution of this dynamic region, both geophysically and biologically, and understand the implications for the near future.



Witkowski CR, Agostini S, Harvey BP, van der Meer MTJ, Sinninghe Damsté JS, Schouten S. 2019. Validation of carbon isotope fractionation in algal lipids as a PCO2 proxy using a natural CO2 seep (Shikine Island, Japan). Biogeosciences

Hollis CJ, Dunkley Jones T, …. Witkowski C… Lunt D. 2019. The DeepMIP contribution to PMIP4: methodologies for selection, compilation and analysis of latest Paleocene and early Eocene climate proxy data, incorporating version 0.1 of the DeepMIP database. Geoscientific Model Development

Witkowski CR, Weijers JWH, Blais B, Schouten S, Sinninghe Damsté JS. 2018. Molecular fossils from phytoplankton reveal secular PCO2 trend over the Phanerozoic. Science Advances

Witkowski, CR. 2014. Mimicking early stages of diagenesis in modern Metasequoia leaves: Implications for plant fossil lagerstätten. Digital Commons

Witkowski C, Blais B. 2013. Bayesian Analysis of Epidemics - Zombies, Influenza, and other Diseases. arXiv at Cornell University Library

Witkowski C, Gupta NS, Yang H, Leng Q, Williams CJ, Briggs DEG, Summons RE. 2012. Molecular preservation of Cenozoic conifer fossil lagerstätten from Banks Island, the Canadian Arctic. Palaois

Dietrich JW, Witkowski C. 2012. Obama’s Human Rights Policy: Déjà vu with a Twist. Human Rights Review.


Research Background

I am currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate within the organic geochemistry unit (OGU) with Prof. Rich Pancost, Prof. Paul Valdes, and Dr. David Naafs on Biosphere Evolution, Transitions and Resilience (BETR) funding as part of the Understanding Monsoon and Biodiversity Relevant to Landscapes and Livelihoods in Asia (UMBRELLA) project.


Prior to this position, I completed my PhD project at the Royal Netherlands Institute on Sea Research (NIOZ) and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, advised by Prof. Jaap Sinninghe Damsté, Prof. Stefan Schouten, and Dr. Marcel van der Meer. My research focus was to develop and apply a novel proxy for PCO2 reconstruction, where I tested the stable carbon isotopic fractionation associated with CO2-fixation via general algal biomarkers (compounds derived from many species) such as the diagenetic products of pigments, sterols, hopanoids, and highly branched isoprenoids. These studies were conducted in modern settings across transects from CO2 seeps and over the geologic record, including sapropel formations in the past 150 thousand years (Quaternary), in a Deep Sea Drilling Site off the coast of California over the past 16 million years (Neogene), and a compilation over the past 500 million years (Phanerozoic). 


My Masters in Global Environmental Studies was also completed at Bryant University with Prof. Hong Yang. The first year took place at the China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) where I conducted degradation experiments on Metasequoia leaves (Chinese dawn redwood) to better understand the effects of microbial degradation versus diagenesis on molecular preservation. Returning to the US, I worked as a research associate and then as laboratory manager for two years (NASA Rhode Island Space Grant). Other research during this time included origins of rice agriculture in China via biomarker fingerprinting and tracing the ancient silk road via stable isotope analysis and degradation studies.


I graduated with Honors from Bryant University in Rhode Island, USA in 2007 with a double major in Environmental Science and Global Studies with a minor in Business Administration. I worked as a research assistant with Prof. Hong Yang and Dr. Qin Leng time on a NASA Rhode Island Space Grant, developing tools to understand the role of labile biomolecules, both from an organic geochemical and paleobotanical perspective. I learned organic geochemical techniques from Mark Pagani’s group at Yale University and analytical instrumentation from Roger Summon’s group at MIT.



School of Earth Sciences