NASA scientist John Grotzinger to speak at UAA

John Grotzinger next to Curiosity’s twin sister that he drives around in the “Mars yard.”  (Photo courtesy of John Grotzinger)
John Grotzinger next to Curiosity’s twin sister that he drives around in the “Mars yard.” (Photo courtesy of John Grotzinger)

Mars was known as the “Bermuda Triangle” of the solar system. With travel logs like “missed planet” or “lost on arrival,” some NASA scientists dubbed Mars the “evil planet,” the place where more than half of the world’s attempted missions have failed. When NASA’s Curiosity rover landed successfully on Mars, the date August 5, 2012 became forever stamped into history. One of the scientists behind this audacious mission is NASA project scientist John Grotzinger.

Grotzinger will be the keynote speaker for a free public lecture at 7:30 p.m. April 16 in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium. The lecture, hosted by the University Honors College, is part of the 2013 Undergraduate Research and Discovery Symposium held each April to celebrate UAA undergraduate students’ research and achievements.

Grotzinger will share the details of Curiosity’s latest findings during his lecture, “Why Curiosity? What are we discovering?” He will also discuss his experiences as one of the driving forces behind Curiosity, literally.

“One really cool thing will be how we go about ‘driving’ Curiosity.  It’s hard with a robot that will be over 260 million miles away from Earth by the time I get to Anchorage,” Grotzinger said when he offered a preview of the discussion.

Grotzinger’s contributions to Mars explorations include his role of planning operations for the Athena Mars Exploration Rover Mission. In 2004, Grotzinger and his team discovered evidence suggesting liquid water existed on ancient Mars, which could mean the “death planet” once harbored life.

Grotzinger is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at the California Institute of Technology under the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. His work primarily focuses on chemical and physical interactions between life and the environment. Grotzinger’s research about early Earth may help guide the analysis of early environments on Mars, because Mars and Earth are thought to have similar prehistoric climates and geologic conditions.

Ronald Spatz, dean of the University Honors College, discussed how he managed to schedule  such a high-demand scientist for the lecture.

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“It started with a conversation,” Spatz said.

Spatz watched the simulated landing of Curiosity on Mars and told his colleague Karen Schmitt, dean of Community and Technical College, about how fascinating the topic was. Schmitt told Spatz that she went to college with Grotzinger.

“I said, ‘Wow, would you e-mail Grotzinger to see if he will come to UAA?’” Spatz said. “And now the scientist is en route to the campus.”

With the theme of “discovery,” Spatz said he hopes Grotzinger’s visit will inspire students to dig deep into their imaginations and embark on their own discoveries.

“It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to listen to the most recent discoveries of Curiosity’s mission from the project scientist himself,” Theresa Cho, biology major and Honors College student, said. Cho is one of 127 UAA students who will be presenting the results of their grants or sharing their research posters during the symposium.

Grotzinger said he looks forward to interacting with students face-to-face.

“Don’t wait to watch it (the lecture) on documentary years from now,” Spatz said. “Be a part of it today.”


For in-depth information on John Grotzinger and for specific dates for Undergraduate Research and Discovery Symposium events, visit