Tullis Onstott, professor of geosciences, died Oct. 19, 2021
I’m heartbroken. The world has lost a phenomenal scientist, teacher, and explorer. TC changed my life.
As an undergrad (Class of 2007), he introduced me to astrobiology and questions that have inspired me to this day. He took us into the field and showed how much fun it can be. He then opened the doors to his lab in the basement of Guyot and taught me how to conduct independent research, culminating in my senior thesis project. He taught me how to be a microbiologist, how to design experiments, how to present and publish results. None of that was familiar to me before intersecting with TC. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no confidence in my abilities. But TC took me under his wing and made me feel like a part of his family in the lab. He lifted me up at every step. He supported me in every idea, whether it was an experiment (like when he sent me to NASA Kennedy Space Center for a summer) or an on campus activity (like when he supported the founding of the Princeton Astrobiology Club).
Looking back, TC was behind each of the most significant parts of my education at Princeton… by far. I’ll never forget talking to TC about graduate school. I really did not intend to go for it and had no clue what it entailed. I never imagined actually becoming a scientist. The idea was still inconceivable. TC didn’t talk to me about graduate school, in the traditional sense of what to expect, or how to get it, or what consider. Nope, he just talked to me about the questions left from my thesis project experiment. He framed some of the next steps and possibilities, talking only about *the science* and the exciting areas I could go explore and study if I applied to graduate school. He planted the seed scientifically for me, and the rest just fell into place.
After finishing grad school, I kept in touch with TC, hosted him at NASA (where I ended up landing), and even collaborated with him on some research proposals. Every time we reconnected, I tried to convey what a profound impact he had on my life. TC is the reason I am a scientist today – there’s just no other way of putting it. I wish I could express my thanks to him again, but I will attempt to do for others what TC did for me… showing students how much joy there is in exploring the world, designing experiments, collaborating with others in the lab, and searching for life in weird places. TC’s voice would always get an octave higher when he got excited about something… or he’d let out his signature laugh. It was an unforgettable part of his personality. I can hear it now, and I’ll always remember his warmth, support and influence on my life.
The world has lost a lovely, brilliant, and humble man, far too soon. In 2001, Tullis took a chance on offering a young South African guy a graduate spot in his lab, forever changing my life trajectory. In the five years that I was in his lab, he provided guidance and support, without micromanaging my research, allowing me to become my own scientist, rather than a clone of himself.
We spent so much time together at Princeton in those years, but also on field trips in South Africa, Yellowstone, and countless conferences, and his exuberance often carried others in his lab through when our motivation waned. The impact he had on me, academically and personally, is indelible.
His immense contributions to the scientific world are quite astonishing and little more can be said that hasn’t already been captured in this lovely memorial. I am honored to say that I almost literally trekked into the center of the earth with him – and that will be my enduring memory: TC with a hard hat on, the headlight shining, backpack filled with research gear, striding excitedly down a pitch black tunnel, deep into the bowels of the earth. I would do it again in a heartbeat if he called me for a reunion trip.
We kept in touch by sending news and photos to one another every holiday season since my departure in early 2008 – he loved seeing my young son growing up and hearing about my new career(s). It will be terribly sad not to update him this year, or to never hear his infectious laugh again.
My deepest condolences to his family. Thank you for everything, and may you rest in peace, TC.
TC Onstott was my first mentor at Princeton.
I met him as one of the co-professors for AST/CHM/EEB/GEO 255: Life in the Universe, a course on astrobiology and the origin of life. As the “GEO professor,” Prof. Onstott led the class field trip to Yellowstone over fall break, where we studied extremophile habitats. While I went into the course interested in an astronomical approach to astrobiology, that field excursion changed me: I left thinking about the subject from a geological perspective. After the trip, Prof. Onstott was the first to suggest I consider majoring in Geoscience.
That suggestion, as it turns out, was consequential.
I would go on to work in Prof. Onstott’s lab for my junior independent work. While over time my research interests diverged from his, TC remained a mentor and friend throughout my undergraduate career, and it was always a joy to catch him during subsequent visits to campus.
A giant in the community has been lost. Requiescat in pace.
Tullis, even though an extremely busy scientist, always had a moment to chat. He was very fond of the small talks we had about living in the Stockton/Lambertville area. I will never forget the activism he did in regards to providing Lambertville with the science they needed to understand life with a pipeline going through their town.
He was always interested in places to eat where he could enjoy a good meal with his family. In essence, he genuinely cared about you and the conversation of the moment. There were a lot of conversations about what it was like to go down 2 miles underground in the mines. I often told him how brave he was.
It will take a long time to absorb that he is gone. He was such a part of life and the culture here at Guyot Hall. He was such a good friend, as well as being an amazing scientist and teacher. He will continue to live on in my heart.
Tullis was an amazing mentor and his passing is a very sad day for Princeton and science in general. As one of the members of his “Argonauts” – a group of his first three grad students attached to his state-of-the-art Ar lab, life was fascinating, exciting, and constantly changing. From the start, it was clear that this young and vibrant junior faculty member was an extremely brilliant, talented, and dedicated researcher who had a lot of knowledge and insights to share. I thought I was a pretty good writer, until my draft manuscript for my first research paper came back from Tullis with so much red scrawl on it, that I think I was in shock for about a week. But after sifting carefully through all of Tullis’ detailed comments and observations, invariably, he was right, and his insights would continue to improve any of the projects that we worked on. Hs strong science and math background stood us – the Argonauts – in good stead during a time when geochronology was becoming much more quantitative, and Tullis happily took all of us on a extended mathematical voyage through the complicated world of diffusion, geochronology, error propagation (ugh), and numerical modelling. He also taught me a lot about the best way to deal with negative manuscript or proposal reviews (particularly when the reviewer was hostile!); his first tip – take at least 3 days to calm down before responding. It was also an exciting time to be in the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, as it was called in those days, with illustrious faculty members like Rob Hargraves, Jason Morgan, Bob Phinney, Tony Dahlen, John Suppe, and Alex Navrotsky all gladly willing to lend their expertise and wisdom to a lowly grad student trying to understand varied topics from Gibbs free energy to the dreaded Bessel functions. I shall always remember my time working with Tullis, the Argonauts, and all of the other grad students in the department, with great fondness and memories. May you rest in peace, Tullis.
TC was instrumental to my path in geosciences. I first met TC during the winter of my freshman year at Princeton. As a student interested in space science and the possibilities of life beyond Earth, his research in astrobiology piqued my interest. Though I had very limited experience in Earth science or biology at that time, he welcomed me into his research group, where I investigated Martian methanogenesis the following summer.
His kindness and support ultimately led me to joining the Geosciences Department at Princeton. Though my interests are now in geophysics, I would not have found the encouragement to explore Earth science had it not been for TC.
Thank you for being a phenomenal mentor, TC. I am saddened that you are no longer with us.
My most sincere condolences to your family.
I got to know TC as a junior and senior undergrad preparing to start my thesis. Tullis took me under his wing and help me craft my thesis. He was a wonderful mentor that introduced me to many new things a beginning scientist. I was able to travel to South Africa with Tullis which was an unforgettable trip that I will always remember fondly.
Tullis has left us too soon. My condolences to the family he has left behind.
Thank you for being a great mentor.
Rest In Peace.
This is how Professor Onstott always signed his emails. Whether forwarding a new paper on exoplanetary habitability or responding approvingly to my term paper proposal on Martian soil, he conveyed an unceasing optimism about the collective quest for knowledge.
I took his class “Life in the Universe” during my senior fall, yearning to expand my horizons beyond my political theory and public policy coursework–and, indeed, beyond this planet. It challenged me in terms of substance and pace, but Professor Onstott made the ride a thrilling one. He loved his students, and he loved teaching. His were the most anticipated lectures in a course co-taught by all-stars across multiple departments.
Once, after class, he posted the slides for a class on synthetic biology to our course website. The subject read “yesterday’s lecture on synthetic biology is posted.” The body: “and a darn good one it is. cheers, tco.”
We will miss you, Professor Onstott. You were a darn good one.
-Nabil ’17 *21
I think of TC often, because he played such a critical role in my life. TC was a fantastic mentor and an inspiration to be around. His enthusiasm for science was truly irresistible, and he made me excited to work on my thesis and JP.
One of my favorite memories of working with TC happened during my junior year, while I was working in his lab for my JP on methane emissions from Arctic permafrost. I was working in the basement lab room across from his office late one night and fell asleep. Around 5 am I awoke to someone opening the door. Still half asleep, I immediately blurted out, “What are you doing here?” to which TC replied with a big laugh followed by, “What am I doing here? This is my lab! What are you doing here? You should be asleep in your room!”
After learning the secret behind TC’s schedule, I continued to work with him and with David Medvigy on my senior thesis and for 10 months after graduation.
I did not originally intend to stay at Princeton after graduation, having hoped to work in environmental policy, but did not immediately find such a position. TC and David offered me the opportunity to stay on doing research while I continued to look for policy related opportunities. It continued to be a joy to work with TC and David during those months in such a supportive environment, doing exciting work with people who I knew wanted me to succeed, regardless of where my path was taking me.
Eventually I found a job in DC and TC was thrilled for me. But after a year in DC, a strange thing happened: I realized I missed research. I missed the excitement I had learned from TC regarding delving deeply into a topic. I missed uncovering new puzzles and seeing how one might solve them.
So, because of my experiences with TC, I decided that although I still wanted to work in environmental policy, I wanted to do so as a scientist. That led to doing a PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences.
TC and I kept in touch over the years via email and, knowing the secret of his schedule, I made sure to get to Princeton as early as possible on Fridays of Reunions so we could catch up in person when possible. After I defended my dissertation via Zoom last year, I let him know the news and that I was now hoping to return to DC to work in environmental policy, but was nervous about what might happen in November. TC, as always, responded with an extremely supportive email. But this one included a satirical “future” New York Times front page that showed everything turning out fine come January 20, 2021.
TC truly helped shaped the trajectory of my life. It is hard for me to process that he is gone, and I will be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to know him. Thank you for everything and rest in peace, TC.
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