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Martin Kennedy

by: Iqbal Pittalwala   (October 2002)

His passion for the natural world began at a young age in the American Rockies and the New Zealand Alps and on sheep farms in Australia.

Today, as assistant professor of geology, Martin Kennedy researches earth history as recorded by the chemical composition of sediments, his work on the snowball earth hypothesis and the carbon cycle finding publication in top science journals. His recent study on acid rain's impact on the ecosystem, funded in part by the Mellon Foundation, gained prominent attention from the press.

His office on campus has the signs of a focused young scientist at work. Piles of journals form a mountain range of scientific text on a table. Slides and photographs taken on his field trips around the world fully cover the surface of a light table nearby. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Kennedy often sits leaning toward his two computers, poised as it were to sprint for the next geology topic to capture his interest. Indeed, he is a runner, having placed fourth in the Tucson Marathon last winter and 19th in the Las Vegas International Marathon this year.

Seeking more direct application of research, Kennedy once left academia to become senior research geologist at Exxon Research Company. "But I began to miss academia," he explains. "I wanted to pursue independent research, follow my own research agenda. I also gained a new appreciation for the value of fundamental research. I was drawn to UCR for its strong program in paleoenvironmental influences on animal evolution and earth history. This is a 'can-do' school without an attitude, and I love that. I appreciate how energy is not wasted here on pomp and circumstance but is invested instead in building a fine reputation, in developing new programs to augment the campus's visibility."

Already a skilled mountaineer and backcountry skier, Kennedy is now taking flying lessons at Riverside Municipal Airport to allow him easier access to California's mountains and deserts. He spends nearly every other weekend in the field and has worked extensively in Australia and Namibia.

Rocks in the deserts in these countries lie well exposed and serve as excellent records of the time interval he studies: the Neoproterozoic (650 to 550 million years ago). "For me, all good things seem to come from the desert," he says. "I even first met my wife, Eva, on a camel trip while doing field work in remote central Australia."

A scientist's work needs to return an obvious intellectual or economic benefit to society, Kennedy believes. "Curiosity ought to be the principal motivator for a life in the sciences, but discipline and determination sometimes just doggedness are prerequisites for success," he says.

Admitting he is competitive, even irreverent, Kennedy is seen by his students as a critical thinker, as one who values and encourages independent thought. From them, he has learned to re-appreciate the field of geology and the fundamental importance of making observations and testing ideas beyond modeling and speculation.

He has learned, too, from his mother. She taught him that in life you most often attain the level to which you aspire.

Raised to believe that one's role in life is to return as best as one can to society, Kennedy feels a career in earth sciences increasingly affords him that potential. "It's a field that is immensely satisfying to me," he says. "Its laboratory is all around us, integrating sciences like chemistry and physics. It will be earth scientists with their almost unique interdisciplinary training who will address several pressing and complex issues humans face.

"I still hold my childhood dream of owning a farm, but I see, too, critical challenges such as global warming and resource depletion that compete for our attention. It's now these issues I aspire to address."

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