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Meteorite Hunter

UC San Diego alumna and cosmologist headlines International Education Week

Ioana Patringenaru | Nov. 22, 2010

UC San Diego alumna Candace Kohl was the keynote speaker for this year's International Education Week.

Over the past 35 years, UC San Diego alumna Candace Kohl has hunted for meteorites in Antarctica, Africa, South America and right here in the United States. She also collects the rocks and owns some that come from the moon and Mars.

Kohl, who earned a doctorate in cosmology here in 1975, came back to campus Tuesday to share her story­­­ – and some of her samples – with a standing-room only audience at the International Center. She was the keynote speaker for this year’s International Education Week festivities.

The weeklong celebration included panels and seminars about studying and working abroad, a student festival, a flag parade and even an international soccer match.

Kohl was one of the first researchers to get the opportunity to work on lunar rocks, said Lynn C. Anderson, dean of International Education at UCSD. Kohl even has an asteroid named after her, Anderson added.

It’s hard to imagine a discipline that’s more international than the study of meteorites, Kohl said. Fieldwork takes place all over the world and requires the cooperation of many governments and academic institutions, she pointed out.

Kohl shows off one of the meteorites from her collection.

“This is a field of endeavor that encompasses the whole world,” she said.

One of the highlights of Kohl’s career was taking part in a six-week expedition to Antarctica 15 years ago. She and fellow researchers were stationed half way between McMurdo Station, the U.S. research outpost on the continent, and the South Pole. Researchers found more than 800 meteorites, including a lunar rock.

“So of course we had to have a party,” Kohl joked.

During the same trip, she befriended researchers from UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who were studying penguins in the area. She helped them pack their gear. They took her to meet their research subjects, a colony of Adelie penguins. “There are thousands of them, they’re really cute and they smell really bad,” Kohl said.

Her interest in meteorites stems from her time as a doctoral student at UCSD. Under the director of James Arnold, now a professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry, she and colleagues studied lunar rocks brought back to Earth by the Apollo 11 mission. The job wasn’t as glamorous as you might think, Kohl said. For one, it entailed grinding through layers of rock from the Earth’s satellite with a dental drill for about six months.

A rare Martian meteorite.

Studying meteorites is important because they tell us a lot about the origins of the solar system and the universe, Kohl said. Most of them formed about 4.6 billion years ago, or more, and come from the solar system’s asteroid belt. They are a window into a time when the Earth didn’t exist, she said.

“It’s more than international research; it’s out-of-this-world research,” said Anderson, the dean of International Education.

Students celebrated International Education Week with a festival on Library Walk.

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