Today, Roger Summons, Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Summons was among 120 new members and 26 international members inducted into the prestigious organization this year, recognizing their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.
Working at the intersection of biogeochemistry, geobiology, and astrobiology, Summons’ work examines the origins and co-evolution of Earth’s early life and the environment, beginning with the first geological and geochemical records and microbially dominated ecosystems. As an investigator in the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life (SCOL), he’s particularly focused on lipid chemistry of microbes important to understating Earth through deep time, organic and isotopic indicators of climate change, and biomarkers in sediments and petroleum.
Summons applies findings from this research to understanding life on Earth and the search for it elsewhere in the universe, recently on Mars. As such, he has served on three committees of the National Research Council: Committee on Origin and Evolution of Life, the Committee on Limits of Life, and the Committee on Mars Astrobiology. As an emeritus member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) Executive Council and the head of the MIT team of NAI called the Foundations of Complex Life: Evolution, Preservation and Detection on Earth and Beyond, Summons helped integrate this research with international science communities. Here, his group investigated factors that lead to the evolution of complex life by examining processes and conditions that preserve biological signatures. More recently, Summons has contributed to Mars Rover missions Curiosity and Perseverance, providing expertise on the preservation of organic matter from different environments on Earth and the red planet.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1968 and PhD in 1971 in organic chemistry from the Wollongong University College of the University of New South Wales, now the University of Wollongong. Summons joined the MIT faculty in 2001 and has been instrumental in building the EAPS Geology, Geochemistry and Geobiology program into a world class one.
Summons joins the NAS ranks with EAPS professors Sara Seager (2015), the late Sam Bowring (2015), Ed Boyle (2008), B. Clark Burchfiel (1984), Kerry Emanuel (2007), Tim Grove (2014), Richard Lindzen (emeritus, 1977), Gordon Pettengill (emeritus, 1979), Susan Solomon (1992), Jack Wisdom (2008), Carl Wunsch (emeritus, 1978), and Maria Zuber (2004). Former MIT Course XII faculty have also served as president of the National Academy, including Frank Press and (currently) Marcia McNutt.