Published June 15, 2020
Where It All Began
Researcher seeks to understand our planet and the fundamental chemical reactions that transformed it.
Paul Falkowski, a leading authority on the ocean’s impact on the environment, is a distinguished professor in the departments of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Marine and Coastal Sciences in Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He is also the founding director of the Rutgers Energy Institute.
Falkowski’s research interests include evolution, paleoecology, biophysics, biogeochemical cycles, symbiosis, and sustainable energy. He aims to understand the origins of life and how organisms transformed Earth’s geochemistry. At the Rutgers Energy Institute, he fosters innovative research and educational programs in science, technology, and economic policies directed at developing sustainable energy production compatible with economic growth and environmental vitality. He also is the lead investigator of the Environmental Biophysics and Molecular Ecology Laboratory.
“I seek to understand the basic chemical reactions that enabled microbes to transform Earth’s geochemistry,” Falkowski says. “I work at the molecular level of proteins and fundamental chemical reactions of minerals and the global scale of how this planet came to have oxygen as the second most abundant gas. I am most interested in understanding how these kinds of processes have transformed our planet and may evolve on planetary bodies in our solar system and on extra-solar planets. There are only two questions I address: Where did we come from? And are we alone?”
Falkowski earned a doctorate in biology from the University of British Columbia. His numerous awards and honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Huntsman Medal, the Hutchinson Award, the Vernadsky Medal from the European Geosciences Union, and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a private nonprofit society of scholars who advise the government on science. He also is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.
The Bennett L. Smith Endowed Chair in Business and Natural Resources was established by an anonymous donor to support a faculty member whose research has contributed to the understanding of the environment and who has been instrumental in shaping energy policy around the world. The gift honors the legacy of Bennett Smith, who came to Rutgers in 1951 as a lecturer and eventually became associate dean of Rutgers College. He inspired generations of students with his enthusiasm for field research and love of learning.
In the Professor’s Own Words
What current research are you most excited about?
For the past year and half, we have been working on the evolution of proteins responsible for the origins of life. These turn out to be small, simple proteins—and our big challenge is to make a metabolic system that is self-sustaining. If we are successful, we potentially can develop a cheap pathway to fix nitrogen for food. It is very challenging, but very exciting!
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Thus far, my greatest achievement has been to analyze global satellite data to derive productivity of the land and the oceans. That is my most highly cited paper.
What is the main thing you hope your students will take away from working with you?
I hope that my students learn to ask the most challenging questions in science and find a pathway to answering those questions that is tractable and efficient.
Why did you choose this field?
I love biophysics and biology, but I wanted to use my talents to understand processes in the real world. I love being at sea and in the field, and I love being able to understand processes on a global scale.
This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.