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Dr. Robert Sohn – Purdue

Senior Scientist - Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Road to Greatness

Dr. Robert Sohn, Purdue ’87, is a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Falmouth, MA, on Cape Cod. WHOI, established in 1930, is the largest independent oceanographic research institution in the US, and it has played a leading role in the development of ocean science and engineering technology over its history. Its fleet includes two large research vessels, including R/V Neil Armstrong (named in honor of a fellow Phi), and several robots and submersibles, including Alvin. Along with its science and engineering achievements, WHOI gained fame in the public sphere with its discovery of the wreck of the HMS Titanic in 1985, and the remains of Air France Flight 447 in 2011.

Rob’s research focuses on deep-sea volcanoes and hot springs, and he has participated in over 25 oceanographic cruises. He has dived in Alvin to depths greater than 12,000 ft to study deep-sea hot springs, and in 2007 he was the chief scientist for an international expedition, including scientists from Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Japan, that sent autonomous robots to the bottom of the ice-covered Arctic Ocean at depths greater than 14,000 ft. to study volcanoes and search for hot springs. The technology his team developed to pull off this oceanographic ‘trick shot’ is now being adapted for future NASA missions to search for life on Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. The Arctic expedition was featured on NPR’s Science Friday, in Wired magazine, and in a Radiolab podcast entitled, ‘Yellow Fluff and Other Curious Encounters’. More recently, his research has focused on thermal activity in Yellowstone National Park, where he has played a leading role in developing mathematical models that accurately describe the behavior of geysers, such as Old Faithful, for the first time. These new discoveries stemmed, in part, from a scale-model geyser that he built in his lab using parts purchased from a local hardware store. From 2016-2018 he led a series of expeditions utilizing a tethered robot to study hydrothermal vents on the floor of Yellowstone Lake, demonstrating that these hidden vents discharge fluids at temperatures greater than 340°F and host exotic communities of sulfur-loving bacteria and viruses, including several species that were not previously known to science.

Rob has authored more than 50 scientific papers, including several in Nature, that have been cited more than 1800 times by other scientists. He has held a visiting appointment at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, in France, and has given invited lectures in England, Germany, China, Italy, and Oman, as well as many US universities.

Rob has a BS in mechanical engineering in 1987 from Purdue University, where he was a member of the Indiana Theta Chapter of Phi Delta Theta. After leaving Purdue he worked for McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, California, where he was part of an advanced design team working on developing supersonic aircraft that produced ‘acceptable’ sonic booms for overland flight. In 1991 Rob left McDonnell Douglas to begin graduate studies at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. It was during this time that he became interested in using geophysical methods, such as seismology, to study deep-sea volcanoes and hot springs. In 1999 he left Scripps to take a faculty position at WHOI, where he has been working ever since.

Rob comes from a long line of family members who are also brothers in the bond, including his father Bob, Purdue ’63, brother Chris, Purdue ’89, uncle Andy, Cincinnati ’58, uncle Bill Indiana ’58, and cousin Eric USC ’91.


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