Ro Kinzler

Photo of Ro Kinzler

Dr. Ro Kinzler is the Director of the National Center for Science, Literacy, Education, and Technology at the American Museum of Natural History. Ro currently leads the National Center's efforts to create an online database of Museum resources for use in both formal and informal educational settings. She is also the Research Associate in the Division of Physical Sciences, and the Earth scientist on the development team for the Museum's Science Bulletins group. The Science Bulletins are high definition installations in three of the Museum's exhibit halls. Prior to joining the National Center, Ro was a Research Scientist in the Museum's department of Earth and Planetary Sciences where she studied igneous petrology (the origin of igneous rocks). "I've been to a few very exciting places in my research, like down in the ALVIN deepwater submersible, exploring mid-ocean ridges," recalls Ro, "but nothing compares to the first time I went to Hawaii in 1993." That's when she got up close and personal with lava.

"My husband and I met up with two friends from graduate school who worked at the volcano observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii. Laura and Kevin gave us vests and hard hats so that we looked official," recalls Ro. "Kilauea was actively erupting at the time, and because our friends worked for the Geological Survey, they took us across the lines where tourists couldn't go. Lava was flowing on the ground, and we had our rock hammers and we were scooping the lava up, we were melting coins in it, we were quenching it in water--it was phenomenal!" This was soon after Ro had finished her Ph.D., which involved years in a laboratory studying how magmas form and travel within the Earth, so it was wonderful for her to be able to play with the molten rock.

Lava love kicked in for Ro right out of high school. At first, like many kids interested in science, she thought she wanted to be a marine biologist. But when chemistry and physics came along, "I found those more intriguing because of the laws and logic involved." Ro headed off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) knowing that she wanted to be an Earth scientist. She declared a major as a freshman, which enabled her to get a lot of requirements out of the way quickly and also to get involved in research early on.

"M.I.T. had a highly regarded program called UROP, Undergraduates Research Opportunity Program," explains Ro. "I took petrology as a sophomore and liked my professor, Dr. Tim Grove, so I asked if I could do a UROP in his lab. He had all these furnaces where they melted rocks, basically simulated conditions deep in the Earth, and it was really fascinating. But at the same time he was a pretty good field geologist. I loved that combination of laboratory work, where you establish good, hard, scientific relationships between different variables, and then going out into the field and make observations and trying to apply the laws you got from the laboratory to understand what had actually happened."

Ro ended up working in Dr. Grove's lab from 1981 to 1991, doing both her master's and her doctorate with him. It worked out extraordinarily well. "My adviser at M.I.T. said, 'Well, you know, if you do stay here, you'll work on generation of magmas at mid-ocean ridges. It's really exciting, it's a field that's going to grow, you'll probably be able to go down in the ALVIN if you want to...' It was a bit of a sales pitch. And he was absolutely right. I did stay, the field really did explode, our work was really well positioned in that field, and I did get to go down in the ALVIN."

What's it like in one of the world's deepest submersibles, the ALVIN? As you might imagine, cold, crowded, and very exciting. Ro actually went on two deep-sea cruises during her graduate years, to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in 1986 and then to the East Pacific Rise in 1988. "In 1986 I was a total neophyte," she recalls cheerfully. "I knew I wanted to work on mid-ocean ridge volcanic processes and magma generation, but I didn't know anything about it." M.I.T. has a joint graduate program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and one of the areas within the program focuses on geology and geophysics related to the ocean basins. "Marine field geologists either go down in the submersibles to make observations and collect rock samples with the submersible's mechanical arm, which is very sophisticated and high-end, or they go out in a ship using remote technologies like deep-towed cameras to make observations. In the latter example, geologists drop a bucket over the side and drag it on the ocean floor to collect rock samples, which is much more common," she explains. The young graduate student was invited along on a six-week research cruise, though "not necessarily to go down in the ALVIN," she qualifies. "They said, 'You can come, and you can do the grunt work.'"

Graduate students were sometimes rewarded with the opportunity to dive in the ALVIN, and Ro got to go down twice. Her second dive went deep into the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which comes to the surface in Iceland but goes down as deep as 4,000 to 5,000 meters in other parts of the world. About the size of the interior of a Volkswagen Beetle, the sphere at the center of the ALVIN submersible is filled with electronics. There are three portholes, one for the pilot and one for each observer, who each sit on a foam pad on the floor. An average dive takes six to eight hours. No seats, no heat, no toilet.

" It's actually a lot of work to do a dive," says Ro. "On the Atlantic, it can take a couple of hours to get down. The pilot's driving and the two scientists are waiting. Then you get close to the bottom and everything comes alive. The lights go on, you get your film and your cameras ready, and once the dive starts, it's constant observation. You're looking out the portholes, talking into a hand-held recorder the whole time, constantly taking bearings, taking pictures all the time, minding the tapes in the external video, making sure the film in the external cameras is changed ... And it's very cold." This dive went into the rift valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, all the way down to 4,500 meters--as deep as ALVIN is rated to descend--"and then we flew slowly up the wall, observing the rocks as we went, and every now and then directing the pilot to collect a sample," she explains. Ro was fortunate to get that opportunity. Yet the 1988 research cruise in the East Pacific Rise was much more meaningful because by then her research was in full swing. "I was specifically interested in the place we were going, and in the rocks that we were collecting. I actually did four dives then and felt much more a part of the show."

In 1991 Ro finished her Ph.D. and took a two-year postdoctoral position in research at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, which is Columbia University's research facility in Earth Science. "I loved it," she says. "My doctorate focused on how melted rock is generated in the Earth's mantle beneath mid-ocean ridges. That just happened to be a hot topic, and people at Lamont who were well known in the field were thinking about it from a lot of different angles. It was an exciting time."

At Lamont Ro met Dr. Ed Mathez, then chair of the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at the American Museum of Natural History, who suggested she apply for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Museum. She had just written a proposal with a geophysicist at Lamont to continue looking at how magmas are generated, and it received funding. So she combined the two programs and for the next two years spent half her time at Lamont and half at the Museum.

In 1995, when the two years were up, Ro started working full-time at the Museum. At the same time the decision was made to create a new permanent exhibition: the Hall of Planet Earth. "Working on a hall or an exhibition doesn't appeal to everybody," she points out, "especially if what you really care about is research. But the idea of educating the public through an exhibition really grabbed me. It was education in a way I'd never thought of. "

After maternity leave for the birth of her first child, Carl, Ro came back into a position that was half education (working on the hall) and half research. The research was on the solubility of chlorine in melted rock (or magma), a project with significant scientific and economic implications. But over the next three years her work on the hall became more and more consuming. Ro's contribution was funded by the newly founded National Center, whose mission is to increase science literacy by bringing the resources of the Museum outside the walls of the building and into the wider world. The new hall opened in spring 1999, shortly before the birth of Ro's daughter, Olivia.

"I was very excited to do the Hall of Planet Earth, and I was really interested in learning more and more about education," says Ro. The National Center's approach is to pair an educational producer with a scientist in order to create a body of products related to that scientist's discipline. Ro liked the setup because she felt comfortable being a scientist while learning about the education and production aspects of National Center projects.

Ro feels that the biggest challenge is "communicating that science is something real people do. A scientist basically is somebody who goes to work and thinks about how to solve a problem. It's a combination of making that process accessible without oversimplifying it, and at the same time showing that it's not a dead field. Science in textbooks generally comes across as a done deal when in fact it's a continuing endeavor," she says. "There's always an edge to what we know. Our biggest goal is to communicate what's happening at the edge, because that's where the real science is happening. "