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NASA researcher touches down at USF

Not only has Dr. Andrew Knoll been invited by NASA to study the prehistoric evolution of Mars, he has also contributed to some of the most pivotal discoveries of prehistoric life on Earth for over 25 years.

Discoveries in his lab include the richness of the Precambrian fossil record, geochemical evidence of major shifts in the carbon cycle and some of the oldest fossils of eukaryotic organisms.

This Harvard professor and alum is one of the most sought-after scientists in his field, being invited to a total of 279 invited lectures at universities and research institutions and 112 invited lectures at national and international meetings. Knoll has been to USF before and gave a lecture endowed by two former teachers on botany. He is coming back to USF on Tuesday night at 7 to the Marshall Center Ballroom and will be discussing his most recent work on the Mars Lander mission currently in operation.

“It has been a thrill to work on this mission, not at least because it helps to constrain speculation on one of science’s big questions: Was Mars ever a biological planet?” Knoll said.

According to an article in the Harvard Gazette by William J. Cromie, Knoll will see new parts of the Red Planet every day through the camera eyes of two robots from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Knoll said that finding a fossil that has lain unseen for a billion years is a great feeling and can be addictive. The challenge, he adds, is to coax a compelling historical record out of fragmentary records — almost like solving a tough puzzle.

Although he is a world-class scientist with numerous awards and recognition, he still finds time to spend with his wife of 30 years and two children. However, when teaching and research come into conflict, teaching wins.

“Actually, more often than not, research enriches my teaching and vice versa. So the two are by no means always in conflict,” he said.

Knoll gives about a dozen lectures a year and is looking forward to his visit to USF to meet students and talk about science that he says he finds exciting. He also wants to visit some faculty colleagues whose work he enjoys, such as Jim Garey in biology and Peter Harries in geology.

For aspiring paleontologists, Dr. Knoll advises to work hard, be curious and find something you love. He also believes that students need not only expand their knowledge of fossils, but also their knowledge of developmental biology, molecular phylogeny, sedimentary geology and biogeochemistry to be a well-rounded and knowledgeable scientist.

“I hope that the work my lab has done will help not only scientists but everyone to understand that the biology we see around us today is the legacy of an evolutionary history nearly four billion years in the making,” he said.

He feels that his work has and will continue to provide methodologies that aid in the ongoing search for petroleum, and it helps guide the continuing exploration of Mars and other bodies in our solar system.