AUSTIN, Texas—A professor emeritus of geological sciences at The University of Texas at Austin who is known for his work in the search for life on Mars will receive the highest honor of the Geological Society of America. The award recognizes a long and illustrious career at the forefront of sedimentology.
Dr. Robert L. Folk will receive the Penrose Medal at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Reno, Nev., on Nov. 12. The society is one of the oldest and largest geological scientific societies, with approximately 17,000 members.
“This is the society’s highest honor and is given for outstanding and original contributions that mark a major advance in the science of geology. Only the most eminent researchers receive this award,” said Sharon Mosher, president of the Geological Society of America. Mosher, a professor of geological science at UT Austin, added: “Bob Folk must be the most innovative scientist in geology. His incredibly novel, almost eccentric, approach to science has been a hallmark of his long career.”
“I am grateful to the geology department of the University of Texas, which allowed me to do whatever I pleased in research,” Folk said. “I am very honored and humbled to receive the Penrose Medal, which has gone to so many other geologists. It’s especially valued because it is for achievements in general geology, not a tiny specialty.”
Folk, born in Cleveland in 1925, first started collecting and attempting to identify rocks when he was 5 years old. He was educated at Pennsylvania State University and began teaching at UT Austin in 1952. Despite having officially retired 10 years ago, Folk continues to be a popular and active member of the UT Austin department of geological sciences.
Kitty Milliken, a UT Austin geology research scientist, said Folk is unique among geologists in looking for inspiration in the formation of nongeological materials, either with his vintage microscope or the department’s Scanning Electron Microscope.
“He’ll study weird stuff that grew in his sink last week, for instance, bird droppings, a bit of arterial plaque, or his wife’s cataract,” Milliken said. “His instincts are amazing, though. No matter how oddball, the things Dr. Folk chooses to look at often end up teaching us something about rocks.”
In 1996, Folk applied his expertise to rocks from Mars after NASA scientists recognized shapes in a meteorite as similar to those in pictures Folk had taken of hot springs minerals in Italy. Folk suggested the microscopic balls and rods in the pictures, which he called “nanobacteria,” might be organic because they are similar to terrestrial bacteria.
The nanobacteria were much smaller than scientists thought life could be, but recent discoveries on Earth have lowered the minimum size required for the existence of life. Folk and his colleagues have since found nanobacteria in many places on Earth, including minerals, water, clogged arteries and tooth plaque.
“Dr. Folk’s work on nanobacteria has proven to be more controversial than anything he explored previously,” said Dr. Brenda Kirkland, a former UT Austin assistant professor of geological sciences. “Largely because of Dr. Folk’s observations, we are just beginning to understand the role of bacteria and organic molecules in precipitation of things ranging from pipe scale to arterial plaque.”
Kirkland said Folk is known for forming elegant explanations of geological observations that often are controversial but almost always are proven true. Folk is respected internationally for developing widely used classification systems for limestones and sandstones and for authoring papers that helped to lay the foundation for the study of those rocks.
“Dr. Folk is one of the world’s leading sedimentologists,” Kirkland said. “He is arguably the most widely recognized geoscientist at UT. Virtually every geology major in the world has heard his name.”
For more information, contact: Dr. Robert L. Folk at (512) 471-5294,