Dr. James P. Ferris, emeritus professor and research professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (RPI), passed away on March 4. He is remembered for his seminal research into the origins of life on Earth and its potential to form on other planets.

Over the course of his nearly five-decade career at RPI, Ferris mentored countless students and researchers, and wrote some of the most important papers on the origins of life. He was the director of the NASA-funded New York Center for Studies on the Origins of Life from 1998 to 2006, which became the current New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer, and was an active member of the NAI RPI team 2009-2015.

Ferris broke new ground in origins of life research with his discovery that long chains of RNA, a possible precursor to DNA in more sophisticated life forms, can be created from simple organics in the presence of clay minerals and water. His research supported the still widely accepted hypothesis that life on the primitive Earth may have arisen from such simple chains of RNA.

In 2012, Rensselaer received a gift from the Emily Landecker Foundation to establish the James P. Ferris Fellowship in Astrobiology to support graduate students in the School of Science.

Also in 2012, students, mentees, and scientific collaborators of Professor Ferris gathered at a special session of the Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta, Ga., to honor him. The session was titled The Origin of Biomolecules in Planetary Environments: From HCN to RNA. View the webcast of the session here. (Adobe Connect required)

For more information about his career, visit his webpage.