John Grotzinger ’79, Sc.D. ’13, the mission leader and project scientist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, will deliver this year’s Commencement Address at Hobart and William Smith Colleges on Sunday, May 13.
Currently the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at the California Institute of Technology, Grotzinger has guided the team that landed the Curiosity Rover, discovering evidence of ancient rivers and lake beds and making history when he confirmed the presence of an environment that could have supported microbial life.
An eminent geologist with wide-ranging interests in sedimentary processes, geobiology, and Earth’s early history, Grotzinger has been elected into the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist. He has received a multitude of awards throughout his career, including the National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, the Fred Donath Medal from the Geological Society of America, the Henno Martin Medal from the Geological Society of Namibia and the Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal by the National Academy of Sciences. He was the recipient of the 2011 Laurence L. Sloss Award from the Geological Society of America for his original and lasting contributions to three areas of sedimentary geology.
A former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Grotzinger was appointed Waldemar Lingren Distinguished Scholar by MIT in 1998 and Robert E. Shrock Professor of Earth Sciences in 2001. At MIT, he researched and investigated the spontaneous burst of life that spawned the early ancestors of all animals, otherwise known as the Cambrian Explosion, which remains one of the most debated and mysterious topics in evolutionary biology. An early 1990’s discovery of a set of fossils in Namibia by Grotzinger has led scientists to redefine the time frame of early animal evolution. In 2001, Grotzinger traveled to Oman to find fossils and geologic evidence to support his theory on the reclassification of the time periods. He and his team found that the Cambrian Explosion may have been the result of a mammoth environmental event in which even the oceans became anoxic.
A spinoff of Grotzinger’s work in the Cambrian and Precambrian eras has applications to the petroleum exploration industry. As a director of the Earth Resources Laboratory at MIT, Grotzinger’s team developed groundbreaking techniques through which scientists are better able to determine the location of oil and gas reserves in rocks and sediments of old age, which had been previously regarded as uneconomic. Exploration techniques were then spun off to influence the study of Mars, in particular the mapping and eventual selection of potential landing sites for the $2.5 billion Curiosity Rover.
He was one of only 28 scientists chosen by NASA to participate in the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover Mission, during which he performed an analysis of Martian sediments and sedimentary rocks and assessed the role of liquid water in shaping Martian landforms.
In 2004, Grotzinger served as a member of both the geology and long-term planning groups for the Mars Exploration Rover mission. As a member of the geology group, he worked on analysis of image data trying to look for distinct textures and fabrics in the soil and rocks which might suggest water as an agent in their formation. As a member and leader of the planning group, he helped develop a context for discussion of science strategies that extend beyond day-to-day discoveries.
At Hobart, Grotzinger earned a bachelor’s degree in geosciences and played lacrosse. He and went on to earn an M.S. from the University of Montana and a Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He completed his post-doctoral work at Columbia University. In 2013, Hobart and William Smith Colleges presented him with an honorary Doctor of Science.
The 2018 Commencement ceremony, which marks the 107th graduation for William Smith and the 193rd graduation for Hobart, will take place on Sunday, May 13 at 10:30 a.m.