Renowned Rutgers professor dies from cancer
Peter Rona, professor of marine geology and geophysics at Rutgers, died of a blood-related cancer on Feb. 19 at the age 79.
Rona was known for his work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and his frequent trips in oceanic submersibles, said Ken Miller, Rona’s colleague and professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
Yet Miller described Rona as “tenacious,” a trait that distinguished him as a scientist. When The New York Times profiled Rona in 2009, the article detailed his relentless efforts to wrench an ancient fossil from the Atlantic Ocean.
When asked if his countless failures frustrated him, Rona said it did not, as science is detective’s work.
“Dr. Rona seems eager to find new evidence and arguments,” the article states.
Miller personally remembers Rona’s willingness to hurdle any obstacle, even the seemingly impossible.
“He would teach a course called ‘Seminar in Ocean Ridge Processes,’ and he tried to offer it every year to graduate students,” he said. “Sometimes there wouldn’t be the requisite number of students, so the deans would want to cancel it. Peter would line [more] students up so he could hold the course.”
Miller said the course was a success, even with students who originally expressed no interest when Rona suggested they take it.
According his self-written biography, Rona was the recipient of the Francis P. Shepard Medal for Excellence in Marine Geology, the Hans Pettersson Bronze Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal for exceptional scientific contributions to the nation.
The bio also states that Rona served as an editor for the Geological Society of America Bulletin and the Journal of Geophysical Research.
“Peter came to Rutgers back in the late 1990s from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science of the University of Miami and NOAA. He’s been a real hallmark in marine geology,” Miller said.
He noted that Rona was best known for his contributions on hydrothermal alterations.
“I know that sounds really fancy, but what it means is that there’s hot water coming out, associated with the volcanoes of the deep,” Miller said.
Rona also conducted a great deal of work on New Jersey’s continental margin and, in his earlier career, wrote “seminal papers” on the effects of changes in mid-ocean ridges on other sea conditions.
Richard Lutz, director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, said he knew Rona for 40 years and called him one of the “finest gentleman scientists.”
“He had a deep care for his students. He was a wonderful teacher,” Lutz said. “He taught a course in introduction to oceanography, which influenced a large number of students to go into the field.”
Lutz echoed Miller’s statement about Rona’s role in recruiting enough students to save a doomed course. Rona was the associate director of James Cameron’s IMAX film “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea,” in which he was also the featured scientist.
Lutz remarked that Rona’s work at the NOAA was “deeply respected,” including his discoveries of the hot water vents in the mid-Atlantic ridge.
“Peter and I have been out to sea many times,” he said. “I went on several major expeditions with him in the East Pacific.”
Rona was a geologist and Lutz believes this complemented his own ecological perspective on their research trips.
“He would always go out of his way to stop and chat with colleagues and students in the halls,” he said. “He would always greet you with a warm smile. He genuinely cared about education and students.”
Rona used to distribute free copies of “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea” to teachers nationwide for educational purposes.
“He literally was in the next office to me for the last 10 years, and he will be surely missed as a dear friend and close colleague,” he said.
Ken Branson, public relations specialist for Rutgers Media Relations, said the University found out about Rona’s death last Thursday from his daughter.
Lutz said an international symposium will take place and a special issue of the journal Deep Sea Research may be released in Rona’s honor.
Although Miller did not work closely on any particular research with Rona, he said they shared a passion for ocean sciences, and it was always great to see Rona in the hallways and around campus.
“We had a common interest in exploration of the oceans so we would talk about the various processes in the oceans,” he said. “We’re going to miss him.”