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Rutgers Professor Famous For Ocean Exploration Passes Away

Peter Rona Taught at Rutgers University's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
Peter Rona
Peter Rona, a Rutgers professor who is considered a leader in the field of oceanic exploration, passed away last week. Rutgers University

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Peter Rona, a well-known Rutgers professor who has traveled deep under the ocean's surface, passed away on February 19 at the age of 79 from blood cancer.

Rona was remembered as a frequent traveler aboard submersibles, and as a worker with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), according to fellow professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences Ken Miller.

Rona was famous for his work on hydrothermal geology, the study of the workings of underwater hot springs, deep beneath the surface of the ocean. The hot springs are associated with volcanoes.

Rona also studied the continental shelf of New Jersey extensively, as well as investigating how changes in mid-oceanic ridges affect the ocean as a whole.

Richard Lutz, the head of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Science, lauded Rona as being among the "finest gentleman scientists," saying that he was a wonderful teacher who "had a deep care for his students."

Lutz said he had known Rona for 40 years, and that Rona's Introduction to Oceanography classes had "influenced a large number of students to go into the field."

Lutz said Rona's NOAA work was "deeply respected," including the discoveries he had made of the hot water fountains in the mid-Atlantic ridge.

Rona served as an associate director of James Cameron's IMAX movie, "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," which he also appeared in.

Lutz said that he went to sea numerous times with Rona, including several "major expeditions...in the East Pacific." On those trips, Rona would serve as a geologist and Lutz would contribute an ecologist's point of view.

Lutz remembered Rona as a warm, friendly person, who would "always go out of his way to stop and chat with colleagues and students in the halls."

Rona "genuinely cared about education and students," said Lutz, and Rona gave away copies of his IMAX movie to teachers across the country, for free.

Rona was also noted for being persistent. The New York Times reported on his many attempts to grab a fossil from the Atlantic seabed, but Rona shrugged off his several failed attempts as "detective work," something that was part of science.

The Times article noted Rona was "eager to find new evidence and arguments," and Miller told the Daily Targum about Rona's drive to overcome any barrier, no matter how challenging it seemed.

Miller gave one example: a graduate student taught by Rona known as "Seminar in Ocean Ridge Processes."

However, in some years, there did not seem to be enough students, and deans would then insist on canceling the class.

According to Miller, Rona would often manage to persuade students into taking the class so that it would be offered.  The class was well-liked, even among students not initially interested in taking it, said Miller.

Richard Lutz, the director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, who had known Rona for 40 years, also credited him for his efforts to revive seemingly failed courses.

Rona wrote an autobiography, in which he noted many of the honors bestowed upon him: the Hans Pettersson Bronze Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Francis P. Shepard Medal for Excellence in Marine Geology, the US Department of Commerce Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to science in the United States.

Rona served as editor for the Journal of Geophysical Research, and for the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

Before coming to Rutgers in the late 1990's, Rona had taught at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, as well as working for NOAA.

Rutgers University learned of the passing of Rona from his daughter last Thursday, according to Rutgers spokesperson Ken Branson.

According to Lutz, a symposium will be held in Rona's honor, in which people from several countries will be invited.