Journey Beyond: An Interview with John Grotzinger ’79

By Quinn Cullum ’18

News Editor

As announced on February 9, John Grotzinger ’79  will  be  giving the Commencement address for the classes of 2018. He studied Geoscience, was a member of the Hobart Lacrosse team, and a brother in Theta Delta Chi while at Hobart. Now an accomplished geoscientist and an endowed chair at CalTech, he upholds the liberal arts philosophy and he reflected fondly upon his years at HWS during our conversation.

What led to your involvement in the exploration of Mars and the Curiosity Rover?

The reason that I was selected by NASA comes down to my training as a field geologist. It all adds up to the fact that I spent a lot of time in the field. Probably 20 years of my life. At MIT, I taught the students to perform geographic mapping. I was one year into my time at CalTech when NASA called to say, ‘John we want you to lead this mission.’

Can you speak more about the work you did on that mission?

It’s all predicated around one simple question: Is there life out there? Is there a planet that once had water? Because water is necessary for life. Once you have a sophisticated rover, you can find not only hydration, but you can actually find specific chemicals as well. NASA selected me to serve as the chief scientist. I thought: the rover will land on mars and it will cost the taxpayers $2 billion, so it was the thrill of a lifetime. You have to bring a team with you in this work, so I led a team of 538 scientists from 13 different countries and 9 different time zones.

What is it like to be a scientist with a foundation of a liberal arts education?

I love the liberal arts. Both my daughters have chosen to go back to New England and study in the liberal arts and my wife did the same thing. I admire the breadth of the courses and I’m a big believer in exploration. You never know what’s going to be around the next corner that might change your perspective or what might change the way that you live your life. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in when I first started. I was taking biology classes, I took a poetry class, and courses in history. I didn’t realize how important all of that would be until later in life. It can be very consequential in your career. Public speaking is important, so English classes were especially valuable for me. For a while, I got interested in economics. At first, I thought geoscience was a joke. I thought: ‘Who wants to study rocks?’ Then I realized that you get to study biology, chemistry, and physics—all while outside! The exploration in the liberal arts is especially valuable. Think about geographic mapping: sometimes you have to walk fifteen miles or more to achieve what you need to.

How did your time at HWS shape you or change you? How did you grow here?

Professor Donald Woodrow’s course changed my life. He was a Professor of Geoscience and, when I began to get interested in geoscience, I accompanied him on some field work. Earth history is just like a history class: there are a set of facts and from that you get a set of plausible scenarios. What I love about this is that, in doing geological work, one has to be appreciative of history. Being a geoscience major in the late 70s was kind of a new thing and it was a tight knit group. My sophomore and junior years were really transformative because I began to do research in the geoscience department.

Can you describe your research while studying at HWS?

When I was there, the Colleges had just received a grant with which they they bought a large tug boat. I got involved in a project where we would go on the boat on Seneca and collect sediment. My summer research advisor was Professor William Ahrnsbrak P’86, who co-founded the geoscience department with Professor Woodrow P’83, GP’15.

There were two main projects. You know how the lake is a normal temperature for a while and then you go deep enough, and eventually, it gets really cold? One of the professors was interested in that phenomenon. We would collect sediment samples and then study the water chemistry. Seneca had a high sodium content and that’s bad for people in Geneva, especially people with heart problems. I thought this was either because of the earlier presence of glaciers in the finger lakes or because the city was salting the roads so much that it was draining into the lake. It turned out to be mother nature and the glaciers. The nice thing about the project was that it was summer research, so I could focus on my schoolwork during the year and my research during the summer.

Did you know you wanted to further your education after receiving your geoscience degree at Hobart?

I didn’t really know what the future would hold when I graduated. I knew that if I was going to be a geoscientist, I needed more education. I applied to the University of Montana because I wanted to go to the west coast and ski. It was a good choice.

Do you have an idea about what the theme of your Commencement address might be? Can you give me a sneak peek?

When you get let out of an airplane in the middle of nowhere and you’re a geologist and you look out onto the terrain, the question is: What are you going to do now?

Professor Woodrow received the Distinguished Faculty award in in 2010 from the alumni and alumnae associations following his retirement from HWS in 2001. Professor Ahrnsbrak was instrumental in bringing the William Scandling research vessel to HWS in 1975 and served as a faculty member in the geoscience department until his retirement in 2004. Grotzinger will give the Commencement Address on Sunday, May 13.


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