John P. Grotzinger, the chief scientist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Mission, who is also the Fletcher Jones Professor at Caltech, is Virginia Tech’s Graduate Alumni Achievement Award recipient for 2014.
At NASA, Grotzinger leads a team of 450 scientists studying Mars using the Curiosity rover in a $2.5 billion research program.
He was instrumental in getting NASA to utilize advanced geological techniques to interpret features documented by the earlier rovers Spirit and Opportunity, helping confirm evidence of liquid water on ancient Mars.
The Graduate Alumni Achievement Award is presented each year at the university’s Graduate Commencement Ceremony. Created in 2003, the award honors its recipients for outstanding national or international accomplishments and exemplary contributions to their professions, disciplines, communities, or society at large.
This year’s commencement ceremony for graduate students is on Friday, May 16, at noon in Cassell Coliseum.
Grotzinger’s work on the Curiosity project led Popular Mechanics to list him among its 10 Innovators Who Changed the World in 2013.
That distinction is just one of numerous ones he has received in a nearly 30 year career. Grotzinger has won more than two dozen individual awards in recognition of his scientific accomplishments, starting with the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1990 and including, most recently, the Roy Chapman Andrews Explorer Award in 2013. In 2007, he was awarded the Walcott Medal, which the National Academy of Sciences presents once every five years.
Grotzinger, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was also awarded NASA’s Outstanding Public Leadership Medal in recognition of the Curiosity rover mission’s success.
He has authored dozens of papers in prestigious journals, including Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Grotzinger also co-authored “Understanding the Earth,” a prominent geology textbook.
He earned his Ph.D. in geological sciences in 1985 from what is now Virginia Tech’s College of Science. Grotzinger also holds a master’s degree from the University of Montana and a bachelor’s degree from Hobart College.
After earning his Ph.D., he worked as a research scientist for the Geological Survey of Canada and the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory. In 1988, he joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he became a full professor in 1995.
Grotzinger’s research has shed significant light on the geological history of Earth, as well as that of Mars. Working with colleagues, he linked unusually high carbon dioxide content in the ocean with the Permian-Triassic extinction event that took place roughly 252 million years ago. His work also has shown that vertical circulation of ocean water led to oxygenation of the deep ocean, likely contributing to a dramatic rise in biodiversity, known as the Cambrian explosion, which took place roughly 542 million years ago.
Grotzinger’s work in this area attracted NASA’s attention, and he now shares his time between the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech. He lives in San Marino, Calif.
Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.