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In memoriam: Professor Jack Farmer

Man standing on rocky terrain in an outdoor setting.

Professor Jack Farmer in the field at the Trendall Reserve in Western Australia. Photo courtesy Professor Geoffrey Bruce

April 26, 2023

The School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University is mourning the loss of Professor Jack Farmer, who died on Feb. 22. 

Farmer was a widely appreciated teacher, eminent astrobiologist and paleontologist, and beloved mentor in the school. He joined the geology department at ASU in 1998 as a professor of geological science. 

During his time at ASU, Farmer became director of the astrobiology program, and his research interests include biological mediation of sedimentary processes, the microbial fossil record of the Precambrian biosphere and the origin and early evolution of animals. 

“Jack inspired us with his deep fascination with the signatures of past life in the sedimentary record, his tireless efforts in teaching, mentoring and research, and the story of his successful professional and personal path in life,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “He was a kind man who left a positive impact in our lives and community — he was a great Dr. Rock at many of our outreach events — and will be deeply missed.” 

Farmer’s research also included being a participating scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover mission and a member of the CheMin instrument team on the Mars Science Laboratory mission. 

In addition to his key role in promoting the exploration for a Martian fossil record, Farmer was instrumental in the selection of the landing sites for Mars Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers. He additionally served on the science definition teams for the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter missions.

“A highlight of my career was made possible through my collaboration with Jack in an effort to understand the discovery of hydrothermal silica on Mars by the Spirit rover. We traveled the world together in our quest, which culminated in a trip to Chile in 2015,” said Steve Ruff, associate research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “Jack’s keen eye in the field and then later back in the lab led to my most important science paper to date. I’ll be forever grateful to Jack for his efforts and proud to have his name forever next to mine on that paper.”

During his time at ASU, and at UCLA and UC Davis before that, Farmer taught courses in paleontology, physical and historical geology, sedimentology, planetary science and astrobiology. At ASU, Farmer also led educational activities as part of the Mars Education Program, which offered authentic science experiences to teachers and students. 

He was known as a conscientious and caring graduate student mentor. Informal public education was also an important focus for Farmer. At the school's annual Earth and Space Exploration Day, Farmer was a regular participant as Dr. Rock, sharing the wonders of geology with countless children and adults. 

"Jack was a generous and patient teacher. He loved to share his knowledge, especially in the field. He never talked down to anyone, as he was that rare scholar who could meet you where you were, whether novice or peer, wanting nothing more than to enlighten and inspire,” said Ariel Anbar, professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Molecular Sciences. “It was a key secret to much of his success."

Farmer was Native American and enjoyed studying the history and culture of his tribes, the Cherokee and Chickasaw. He received the Recognition Award from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society summer bridge program in 2002 for his community-outreach work with Native American communities. 

“Jack was an Indigenous geoscientist who took very personally and seriously the challenge to expand opportunities for Indigenous students in the geosciences, through organizations such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, of which he was a lifetime Sequoyah Fellow, and the Geological Society of America, of which he was also a fellow, “ said Steve Semken, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “As a mentor and teacher, Jack has a superb legacy to match that of his scientific work.”

In Farmer’s long scientific career, he contributed to several institutions before arriving at ASU. From 1986 to 1991, he taught at UCLA, and before that he was a research scientist in the Exobiology Branch of NASA's Ames Research Center from 1991 to 1998.

In 2001, he testified on Life in the Universe before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Committee on Science, Space and Technology in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Farmer’s career highlights include being the leader of one of the founding teams in NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, a member of NASA’s Space Science Advisory Committee and a chair of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group. He contributed to the revision in 2004 of NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap. Farmer substantially influenced the astrobiology strategy for Mars exploration. And he served as associate editor for several journals and as an officer for the Geological Society of America

“He was a geologist through and through. He appreciated the geologic record as a real measure of what had happened on Earth over time and as a constraint about how life interacts with the other spheres of the Earth,” said Ramon Arrowsmith, associate director of operations and research at the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “He was a truly dedicated teacher: thorough in his preparation, a master of the material, a leader of field education and a curator of beautiful teaching collections. Most importantly, he made a connection with his students and cared deeply for them and their success.”

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