Professor Searches for the Genesis of Biological Systems in the Earth’s Depths

Posted: March 3, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Robert Hazen and Kim Cone
“He is one of the few people that can integrate all areas of science and make it understandable to students,” says undergraduate Kim Cone, shown working with Robinson Professor Robert Hazen in his lab.

By Karen Akerlof

At many universities, the most distinguished professors teach only graduate students. But at George Mason, thanks to the vision and generosity of the late Clarence J. Robinson, undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are recruited to George Mason from senior positions at prestigious institutions, including Princeton, Harvard and Yale.

The mission of these educators, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors, is to enrich the academic experiences of undergraduate students while continuing their scholarly pursuits on broad and fundamental intellectual issues.

The first cohort of Robinson Professors arrived after the university started receiving income in 1984 through a historic bequest from Robinson. A leading businessman and civic leader in Northern Virginia, Robinson was prominent among a group of Northern Virginia citizens who sought to establish an institution of higher education in the region.

This is the eighth in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea, Shaul Bakhash, Roger Wilkins, Harold Morowitz, James Trefil, Carma Hinton and John Paden were previously profiled.

Robert Hazen

In his laboratory, Robinson Professor Robert Hazen pursues the question of how complexity arose during the genesis of life, but the term “emergent complexity” seems to apply equally well in describing his own multifaceted career.

With a wide span of academic interests, publication of 12 books, as well as numerous popular science articles and a side career as a professional musician, Hazen’s curriculum vitae is unique not just in its length, but in its diversity.

Robert Hazen
Robert Hazen
Photos by Evan Cantwell

His resume, which starts at “Scientific Research and Education,” takes on a new tone at “Professional Experience — Symphonic Trumpeter.” It becomes more colorful with each additional heading, from “Popular Writing in History and Science” (e.g., Newsweek and Scientific American) to “Selected Television Appearances” (e.g., “The Today Show,” “NOVA” and “Nightwatch”).

“Bob has a very complex life,” says fellow Robinson Professor James Trefil, with whom Hazen has written two books. “He basically has five full-time jobs.”

From Earth Sciences to Biology

Upon coming to Mason in 1989 through the Clarence Robinson program, Hazen was labeled “Professor of Earth Sciences.” However, the title does little to describe his array of interests. He has served as a staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Geophysical Laboratory since 1978, where he initially worked in high temperature and pressure crystal chemistry. Since then Hazen has strayed far from the traditional boundaries of crystallography.

“Right now I am doing more publishing in biology than anything,” he says.

One of his most recent articles, soon to be published in the International Journal of Developmental Biology, is titled “The Emergence of Patterning in Life’s Origin and Evolution.” Not bad for someone whose last biology course was in eighth grade. The irony isn’t lost on Hazen, who uses that example to explain why teaching integrated science is so important.

“Now all of geology is taking this huge right turn into the life sciences. You can’t look at a rock, you can’t work at the earth’s surface without seeing biology.”

Those connections between biology and geology have led Hazen to a grant from the Sloan Foundation investigating a potential new research discipline – the “Deep Carbon Cycle” – with potential ramifications on the understanding of petroleum formation, as well as carbon sequestration strategies deep within Earth’s surface. They also fueled his leap into astrobiology, which has generated millions of dollars in funding from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute to investigate links between high pressure and temperature environments, such as deep sea vents and the origins of life.

Hazen’s experimental work is done at the Carnegie Institution with its millions of dollars of equipment, but his ideas have fomented in conversations with scientists from many institutions, particularly Mason.

The first page of Hazen’s newest book, “Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin,” starts with a description of another Robinson Professor, Harold Morowitz, as he hustled into Hazen’s office one morning in 1996 with a revelation about the strange properties of water at high temperatures and pressure, properties that might be conducive to the formation of complex organic molecules.

Decades after submersibles had identified life forms along deep undersea vents, the prevailing theory of life’s origins remained that of compounds in Earth’s atmosphere combining with water and ultraviolet light to form the first organic molecules. Morowitz and others wondered if life might have formed instead deep within the ocean in areas of geologic activity where hot, mineral-rich waters spewed forth. Morowitz’s question to Hazen was, “So, can you do the experiments?”

More than 10 years later, Hazen is still pursuing what he terms one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in science: How did life arise? The scientist, along with students from Mason, has sought answers using diverse approaches.

Mentoring Undergraduate Students

Patrick Griffin, who graduated with a BS in physics from Mason in 2005, interned over the summer of 2003 with Hazen. Together they dove into the field of complex emergent systems, using software to simulate evolving biological structures early in the history of Earth.

“We both went into this one completely green,” says Griffin. “He’s very willing to take risks in his research career. The complexity thing is something off his beaten path.”

The risk paid off. Hazen and Griffin’s work was published in 2007 — a day before Griffin’s 25th birthday — in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “I realized my career is all downhill from here!” jokes the Mason alum, who took a job at the Carnegie Institution after graduating and continues to work on complexity problems.

Since November, another Mason undergraduate, geology major Kim Cone, has been working in Hazen’s lab as well. She has been investigating the same question of life’s origins, but from other angles. In one experiment she tests organic compounds to see how they react at high pressures using a device called a “diamond anvil cell,” squeezing the flat-cut sides of two flawless diamonds together with the test substances between. Cone says it’s a unique opportunity for her. “You don’t get to deal with diamond anvil cells in an undergraduate program,” she says.

Having taken one of Hazen’s courses about a year and a half ago, Cone says, “He is one of the few people that can integrate all areas of science and make it understandable to students.”

That aspect of Hazen doesn’t have a separate category on his resume, but it was actually the driving force in his coming to Mason.

On the heels of his pioneering work with superconductors and with a pre-publication manuscript of “The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor” in hand telling the story in accessible language for nonscientists, Hazen was chosen as the first experimental scientist of the Robinson Professors — and one with a talent for communicating science.

“Bob is a prominent research scientist, and he’s a prominent educator, and that is a rare combination,” says Trefil.

When Hazen arrived at Mason, he joined Trefil in developing a course teaching science literacy to undergraduate nonscience majors. The class that resulted — UNIV 301: Great Ideas in Science — is now taught in two sections, with Trefil leading one, and Hazen the other.

The course spun quickly into a best-selling book, “Science Matters: Achieving Science Literacy,” with approximately 300,000 copies in print, and a textbook, “The Sciences: An Integrated Approach,” now going into its sixth edition.

This semester, Hazen is teaching UNIV 301, but he has taught undergraduate courses in interdisciplinary topics such as scientific ethics, and symmetry in art and science, as well as graduate courses in astrobiology and origins of life.

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