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John P. Grotzinger is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at California Institute of Technology under the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. His works primarily focus on chemical and physical interactions between life and the environment. In addition to biogeological studies done on Earth, Grotzinger is also active in the geological research of Mars and has made contributions to NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.
B.S., Hobart College, 1979
M.S., University of Montana, 1981
Ph.D., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1985
Post-doc, Columbia University, 1985-1987
Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1987-2005
Jones Professor, California Institute of Technology, 2005–present
Grotzinger is among the scientists on the Athena Science Team of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission and is responsible for the planning of the operation. The objectives of the mission include investigation on the geological history of the Martian landscape, using equipment on board the rover to analyze the geochemistry of the soil and rock samples. In 2004, Grotzinger and his team made the discovery of evidence for liquid water on ancient Mars based on mineralogical and chemical data. Due to the likelihood that the early history of the red planet is similar to that of the Earth, Grotzinger hopes to gain more understanding of Earth’s evolution through the studies on Mars. Grotzinger is optimistic about Mars’ potential in providing clues to the origin of life on Earth. Currently he is Project Scientist for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral via Atlas V rocket in November 2011, and successfully touched down on the Martian surface on August 5/6 2012. On December 9, 2013, Grotzinger and his team reported that Mars had a large freshwater lake (which could have been a hospitable environment for microbial life) about 3.5 billion years ago based on evidence from the Curiosity rover studying Aeolis Palus near Mount Sharp in Gale Crater.
Grotzinger has made major contributions to the field of paleontology. In 2003, Grotzinger and his colleagues researched the idea that the so-called Cambrian explosion of biodiversity may have followed an extinction event of earlier organisms. Furthermore, his recent research based on carbon and sulfur isotope ratios has shown that vertical circulation of ocean water led to oxygenation of the deep ocean shortly before the end of the Proterozoic, which may also have contributed to the rise in biodiversity.
Combining his expertise in sedimentology and biogeology, Grotzinger’s research on stromatolites reveal that these structures could form from both biological accretion and physical deposition, asserting that early Proterozoic stromatolites may not all have had biological origins. Since stromatolites are vital tools in understanding the Precambrian biota, this proves to be an important consideration when studying ancient microbial evolution.
In 2007, Grotzinger received the Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal from the National Academy of Sciences "for the insightful elucidation of ancient carbonates and the stromatolites they contain, and for meticulous field research that has established the timing of early animal evolution".