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Rock-Solid Science

After doing fieldwork that brought her to the ocean floor, geologist Ro Kinzler ’84, SM ’85, PhD ’91, takes earth science to the public.

When Rosamond (“Ro”) Kinzler was six months pregnant, she drove 13 hours to reach an abandoned iron mine in Canada, trekking for hours in search of a single rock. When she finally found what she was after—a nearly three-billion-year-old sample of banded iron just the right size—she called in a small crane and a flatbed truck to cart the two-ton boulder off to a rock-cutting facility. Its ultimate destination was New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where she was a curator of the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth.

A former research scientist, Ro Kinzler now gets students and teachers excited about science at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City’s most visited school destination.

Kinzler, 50, who now directs the museum’s National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology, had arrived as a postdoc in 1993, just as planning for the hall was getting under way. And she wanted no part of the traditional natural-­history display, which she describes as small, typically undistinguished rocks presented in “glass case after glass case of ‘rock, label, place, rock, label, place.’”

This story is part of the November/December 2012 Issue of the MIT News magazine
See the rest of the issue

She and her colleagues “wanted to have samples that would be really amazing,” she says. And they wanted to organize the exhibit around five major questions that anybody could ask: How has the earth evolved? Why are there ocean basins, continents, and mountains? How do we read the rocks? What causes climate and climate change? Why is the earth habitable?


Helping illustrate the answers to those questions are huge rock samples, the likes of which you wouldn’t find in a standard geology exhibit. Kinzler and her fellow curators traveled the world to track down such finds as pure sulfur formed in an Indonesian volcano, and an ancient stromatolite fossil from the Sahara Desert. “We were using things like dynamite and jackhammers and big cranes and boom trucks,” she recalls. “That’s not your typical geology field trip where you’ve got a backpack and a rock hammer.”

Kinzler now applies that same ­whatever-it-takes approach to get people excited about all kinds of science, but as an earth and planetary sciences student at MIT, she did her fair share of rock-­hammer geology. Although she struggled academically when she first arrived at MIT, she managed to hang on because of the freshman pass-fail ­policy. (If she’d come home at Thanksgiving with Cs and Ds, she says, she wouldn’t have gone back.) After a UROP studying mineral composition inside magmas, she quickly got hooked on research. She stayed on for a master’s and PhD, completing all her research with her UROP advisor, Timothy Grove, who says she’s one of his favorite students in his 33 years teaching at MIT. Investigating the little-understood phenomenon of how magma beneath the earth’s crust melts and then ascends to the surface, Kinzler worked with Grove to build a high-temperature, high-­pressure experimental device that his lab still uses today. She confirmed the surprising prediction that when mantle rock at midocean ridges starts to melt, it does so in very small amounts, leaving the rock in which it originated almost instantaneously to collect in magma chambers on its way up to the surface. Her dissertation became what Grove calls “a fundamental contribution” to her field.

Kinzler thought about scientific problems at a high level, “like you would expect somebody to think about them after they had gotten the PhD,” he says. “You end up treating her more as a colleague than as a student.”

Kinzler’s PhD fieldwork took her to midocean ridges in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, where she dove six times with the Alvin submersible. (Grove only got to dive twice; many geologists never do.) She recalls leaving the light and warmth of the surface to descend through darkening waters, through a layer of sparkly bioluminescence, and then deep into the pitch-black depths at the ocean floor, where it was so cold inside the six-foot-diameter submersible that its three occupants needed hats and sweaters.

She and another researcher pointed out fresh lava flows recently erupted from the ocean crust, and the pilot collected samples using a robotic arm, dropping each into a specific hole of a basket attached to the Alvin. Kinzler still recalls the thrill of surfacing after about six hours on the bottom. “Everyone is waiting for you—they’re so excited,” she says. “They can’t wait to see what’s in the basket, they can’t wait to hear what you’ve seen.”

By the late 1990s Kinzler had completed a postdoc at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory and joined the natural-history museum as a research associate. But with two children, Carl and Olivia, to raise (Kinzler met her husband, Carl Bespolka ’83, SM ’89, at New House her freshman year), she decided to leave research behind and focus on science education.

At the National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology, she has led the development of OLogy, a science website for kids. She was also executive producer of the planetarium show “Journey to the Stars” and recently co-designed a 15-month program for earth science majors leading to a master’s degree and certification to teach in New York high schools.

“What’s unique about Ro is that she’s an educator right now … but she’s come at that from the point of view of a scientist who was at the highest level of science in terms of research,” says Edmond Mathez, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the museum and the lead curator for the Hall of Planet Earth. “She can talk with authority when it comes to science.”

The hands-on Hall of Planet Earth, which earned the 2002 Excellence in Geophysical Education Award from the American Geophysical Union, is still one of Kinzler’s favorite projects at the museum. “The museum is the most visited school destination in New York City, and certainly the Hall of Planet Earth is one of the most visited by school groups,” says Kinzler’s supervisor, Lisa Gugenheim. “It’s proven to be an enormous, enormous addition to the museum in terms of content and design.” The hall has become a central learning lab for the museum’s new master’s program in earth science.

Standing near its entrance, next to the enormous sample of banded iron she collected, she rests manicured hands on the black boulder streaked with burnt red and tells its story.

The rock formed at a time when the oceans and atmosphere had no free oxygen, she explains, but the ocean contained a tremendous amount of dissolved iron. We know something happened to start producing oxygen, because the dark bands on the rock are iron oxide. But the bands eventually stopped forming. Why?

Kinzler walks around the corner to tell the rest of the story. “This is stromatolite,” she says, pointing out a lighter-colored rock: a relatively recent sample of fossilized algae from the ocean, evidence of early photosynthetic life. For more than a billion and a half years, “all the oxygen that these guys produced reacted with the iron in that ocean water and precipitated out to form banded iron.” But around 1.8 billion years ago, the iron was depleted, which meant oxygen could build up in the atmosphere, making it possible for multicellular life to begin in the ocean. It also eventually led to the formation of the protective ozone layer, which meant “life could move out of the oceans onto land, and it all took off from there.”

She ends the tour at a sample of one of the oldest known rocks, from the Acasta Gneiss in northern Canada. “People say, Wow, isn’t it precious? Why can I touch it—why isn’t it behind glass?” she says, laughing. But at its source in the Northwest Territories, the gneiss spans about 64 square kilometers—you can camp on it. “So it’s really not very precious, and it’s very durable—it’s been around a long time.”

“It’s getting a patina,” she says of the sample. “I’m proud of that.” It sums up her goal for the hall—teaching by touch, not by placing rows of tiny rocks inside a glass case.

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