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Meet: Jack Farmer

Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, California

jack farmer photo

Photo taken by Michael Milstein, Billings Gazette

My Journals

My Career Journey

The week before I started college I sat down with my dad to talk about my plans. He suggested I should choose a major before leaving for school and that it should be something I really enjoyed. I distinctly remember him saying: "You know son, whatever you choose, you will have to be doing that everyday for the rest of your life, so you'd better enjoy it!" It is possible to make career changes later on in life, but basically I think my dad's advice was pretty much right on! When I asked my dad what he thought I would be good at, he said: "Ever since I can remember, you have been interested in rocks. You and your mom wouldn't let me go past a riverbed without stopping during our drives in the country. You have an uncle who used to work with rocks...I think he called himself a geologist."

So the next week I headed off to school to meet with my counselor and asked if she knew about a major for geologists. She said yes, so I declared my major the first semester and never looked back. I've never regretted my decision. Geology is so broad and interdisciplinary; I've moved around a lot within the field during my career. I started out in volcanology, moved to geochemistry for awhile, then to statistics, on to paleontology, and am now working in planetary science. Interesting thing is, I continue to use most all of that background, even in the work I'm doing now!

According to my mother, I collected my first rock when I was six years old. By the time I was 10, my collection was so big I had to give a lot of rocks away when we moved. My mom encouraged me by providing empty egg cartons for storing my samples, and by helping me identify my rocks, minerals and fossils. She even bought me my first geology book, "How to Know the Rocks and Minerals" and took me to my first geology meeting, a giant rock and minerals show in Los Angeles. In short, I was hooked early! My nickname in high school was "Stoney."

I received a Ph.D. in Paleontology from the University of California at Davis in 1978. Shortly after finishing my degree, I was employed as museum scientist by the Geology Department at Davis. My job was to assemble collections of minerals, rocks and fossils to help teach courses in geology and paleontology and to support the research being carried out by the faculty. During my time at Davis, I learned a lot about how to classify natural materials and also a lot about how nature is organized. While a museum scientist, I also taught courses in geology and paleontology. My favorite course was a field course in marine paleoecology (study of the ecology of fossil life). I taught this course at the university's marine station at Bodega Bay, in northern California. The course lasted six weeks and my students were able to go out to the field almost everyday and observe and carry out experiments on living marine communities. We tried to understand not only living creatures, but how they become fossilized. In the second half of the course we visited many different places in California where we could study the fossil record of marine life and reconstruct how the ancient marine species lived and interacted.

After five years as museum scientist I decided to try another career and left Davis to join Exxon as a petroleum geologist. My job with Exxon was to find oil. I focused my search on the offshore marine areas of southern California. Using many different methods that enable geologists to visualize the study of rocks underground, I was able to determine the most likely places to drill for oil and gas. It was exciting and during my five-year stay with Exxon I found between five and 10-million barrels of oil.

After leaving the petroleum industry I returned to academics. Although I enjoyed finding oil, I really missed teaching. I was able to land a job teaching Oceanography, Earth Science and Paleontology at UCLA in southern California. I was there for five years and during that time also developed my present interests in the very early history of life and the solar system. This brought me to NASA in 1991 on a research fellowship from the National Research Council. The project I came to NASA to do focused on developing methods to better interpret the fossil record of very small microorganisms. It was quite a change from my early years as a paleontologist where I focused on larger organisms with hard skeletons of bone or shell. Now I had to worry about how very small organisms with no skeletons could become fossils.

Where I Am Today

My studies at NASA have lead me in several directions. An important part of my research deals with the origin of stromatolites, which are thin-layered sedimentary structures that are produced by communities of microorganisms. But I have also been interested in how some of the tiny microbes that create stromatolites become fossils. We have actually found tiny microfossils in rocks as far back as 3.5 billion years. Question is, how do these tiny creatures get preserved and why? By understanding such things we can learn more about the ancient environment of the early Earth, and also improve our chances of finding evidence of ancient life in rocks.

I'm still working on these problems. It turns out that on the present Earth, microorganisms tend to thrive in extreme environments; places that are either too hot, too cold, or too salty or acidic for larger complex organisms. I have looked at bacterial life and their fossils in lots of extreme environments. But in trying to better understand how the earliest communities lived, I have mostly focused on life at high temperatures, that is, on microbes that live in hot springs found in places like Yellowstone National Park. I have spent the last five summers in Yellowstone trying to learn more about how the high-temperature communities survive, interact and become fossils. This is important for interpreting the fossil record of early life on Earth. We believe that the last common ancestor of living species on Earth lived at very high temperatures. We know this because when we compare the DNA in all living things, we can make a "tree of life" that shows how things are related. Turns out that the most primitive things, that is, the species that occur near the trunk of the tree, are all high-temperature bacteria, most of which live in hot springs and geysers. So these are good places to go to find conditions similar to what prevailed on the early Earth.

But the story doesn't end there. Because hot springs are such good places to fossilize microorganisms, these environments are also natural places to explore for fossil life on Mars. So, we have also been looking at images of the surface of Mars for the most likely spots for ancient hot-spring deposits. If we can find such deposits, we will want to go there and bring rocks back from those places to look for microfossils. This is in our present plan for Mars exploration, and has been really given a boost by the recent report of possible life in the Martian meteorite, ALH84001, which was found in Antarctica. Although I do not think this rock from Mars has definitive evidence of life, it does have organic chemicals that were preserved much in the same way we see things preserved in hot springs on Earth. NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Pathfinder and Russia's Mars '96 mission are scheduled for three separate launches in November and December 1996. We hope that with the new information we get back from these missions, we will better know where to go to bring samples back to Earth that may help us answer the question, "Did life ever develop on Mars?"

The Best and Worst of my Job

The best thing about my job is the excitement of exploring ancient worlds, either on Earth by looking back in time at old rocks, or in space by looking at old planetary surfaces or the planetary materials brought to the Earth as meteorites. My job is also fun because of all the fascinating people I meet, and the interesting seminars and discussions we have every week. It's wonderfully challenging to go into the field and try and reconstruct past events from the meager clues provided in the rocks, and it is great fun to bring samples back to the lab and tease out more clues using the microscope and other tools. Sometimes I feel like I'm Sherlock Holmes solving a crime. And I have often thought, if I ever stopped doing geology, I would like to try forensics.

What do I like the least? Working for a large bureaucracy like the federal government can be quite frustrating at times. Sometimes you feel like the system is designed to prevent your progress; traveling or buying materials for your work can really be involved because of all the paperwork and legal restrictions. Another downside of my work is the need to travel a lot. As a field-oriented geologist, you have to go where the interesting rocks are and that is usually somewhere else. That means time away from home and family, which I don't like.

When I was a Kid

I enjoyed being outside and really liked nature a lot. My room while I was growing up looked like a museum. I guess it still does. My wife calls my part of the house the "Smithsonian Wing" in honor of all the wonderful things I have collected over the years.

The book that really got me interested in science was "How to Know the Rocks and Minerals." But there were lots of other "How to Know..." books and I read most all of them. I also read a lot in areas other than science, like all the Zane Grey classics and books about animals. In particular, I liked to read about horses and had my own library of classic stories like the "Black Stallion." We did not have much money, so a lot of my books came from the Salvation Army. I did partcipate in science projects at school but most of my projects were just for fun at home. Being in the country most of my life, I raised lots of animals, including fish, frogs, snakes, pigeons, chickens, horses, cows, pigs; you name it, and I probably took care of it at some point. (I don't have any pets today!)

Job Preparation

I took all the science I could in school. But, because I did not have the advantage of going to schools with strong science programs, I motivated myself to go to the library by inventing projects. Books were some of my best friends growing up, and they helped me maintain my interest and growth in science. When I was 10, I went through a phase where I became extraordinarily interested in birds. At that point, I started my bird book project which lasted two years. It was a three-ring binder filled with every picture and every fact I could find about birds. I had pages of envelopes with feathers, and even spent time at the zoo taking pictures with my Kodak Brownie camera of exotic birds. Sometimes the zoo keeper would give me feathers that he saved when he cleaned the cages, which ended up in my book. My friends called me "bird brain," but it didn't bother me much. I liked my project and learned a lot.


My biggest inspiration was my mom. Both literally and figuratively she "egged me on" to collect my rocks (she provided the egg cartons to house my collection!) and then helped me identify them. She always encouraged me to pursue my interest in nature and to read the right books. She even tolerated my museum/room with all the creepy crawlies that were in there (or in my pockets come laundry time!).


I am married and my wife Maria is the educational outreach coordinator for the Exobiology Branch at NASA Ames Research Center where we work. We live close by in Mountain View, and that is because I don't like driving in traffic. My hobbies are playing the guitar and writing music. I used to perform in bands a lot, but now I more often enjoy listening. I am one-quarter Native American and enjoy studying the history and culture of my tribes, the Cherokee and Chickasaw. I like American Indian crafts and recently made my first rawhide drum. I try to play it in the morning to keep it "tuned." I am also learning to play the Native American flute and hope to dance in my first pow-wow next year when I have finished making my new outfit. I have a son, Brett, who is a senior at California State University in Chico. He is majoring in Economics. He is also interested in environmental sciences, but didn't discover that until last year. He may pursue that subject in graduate school after he finishes his Bachelor's degree. The other rock hounds in my family are my two nieces, April and Angela, who live with their mother (my sister) and my mom in Live Oak, California. Everytime I visit I have fun going through their egg cartons of rocks and helping the girls identify them. I also like to take them on collecting trips, usually to the riverbed. Amazing how history repeats itself!

Archived Chats with Jack Farmer

jack farmer photo

Photo taken by Seth Shostak, SETI Institute


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