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College of Arts and Sciences

  • Professor S. Michael Angel

Faculty Spotlight: S. Michael Angel

Fred M. Weissman Palmetto Chair in Chemical Ecology
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Came to USC in August 1993
B.S. North Carolina State University
Ph.D. North Carolina State University

Michael Angel’s interests run deep – deep into space and deep into the ocean.

Because his specialty is making chemical measurements in extreme environments and remote locations, he works both with the current and future Rover expeditions exploring the possibility of life on Mars and with the exploration of hydrothermal vents miles below the ocean surface.

“It’s what I am, a chemist,” Angel says. “I wanted to be an astronomer when I was a kid. I just turned out to be a chemist.

“But over the years, I’ve been heading toward the astronomy direction.”

For several years, Angel has worked with scientists on the Mars Rover program, which seeks to find water on Mars. If there’s water, the science says, there’s the possibility of life.  

Angel has worked as an advisor in support of the Curiosity Rover, on Mars now. He is also on the science team developing an instrument called SuperCam to be the launched in 2020, and he and his students will provide support during the mission.

The Rover SuperCam instrument uses a laser to “tickle the molecules” of rocks it finds on Mars, seeking to discover the basic elements of life: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and complex molecules. If the Rover can find the elements, samples will be cached and eventually brought back to Earth for scientists to study.

“The goal for Mars is to find life – either current or past life,” Angel says. “All the Mars 2020 instruments … are designed specifically to look for life.”

Angel and his students work in an atypical chemistry lab – there are no pipettes and beakers but workrooms shrouded with black curtains. Spread out on the lab tables is a collection of metal pieces that resemble a sophisticated Erector Set.

“There’s nothing like this,” Angel says – “taking these nuts and bolts and building something that gets sent to Mars.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Angel’s work with hydrothermal vents, dark cracks in the ocean floor that house animal and plant life that good sense argues should not be there. There’s no light, after all, so no photosynthesis – but there are plants. And 10-foot-long worms.

Such vents affect ocean chemistry. When water seeps into the vents, it heats up. Rocks dissolve and grow “chimneys” that can affect the ocean’s chemistry.

This research, too, will use a laser-based spectrometer mounted on a three-person submarine that will sink 2½ to 4 kilometers into the ocean, to the vents. Angel estimates the first trip will be two years away. For now, oceanographers and chemists must study samples remotely, as they do with Mars.

“The chemistry of the ocean is affected (by the vents), and we need to know how,” Angel says. It’s clear to him that not many people are so committed to finding out that they would spend days, miles under the ocean while “all sorts of nasty things” come out of the vents.

“Not many people are as crazy as we are,” Angel admits. “It’s really hard. It’s really tough, (but) we do everything because we’re curious.

“The chemistry of the ocean … affects the climate. If we can’t understand it, we have no hopes of understanding global climate change.”

Why did you come to USC? Angel used to work at the famed Lawrence Livermore National laboratory in California, the one established by atomic bomb pioneer Edward Teller. But, “I got tired of California” and wanted to come back to his native Carolinas.

“I realized I was more of an academic anyway,” he says. “This department’s amazing. The colleagues here are just so supportive of each other. All chemistry departments are not like that.”

But what about the band?

Angel also is a member of Blackwater Creek, which plays Americana on banjos, mandolin and guitar. Strangely, the band evolved from a rock band of which Angel also was a member.

Angel writes songs, as well as playing an instrument and singing.

The band has gotten some play on Sirius/XM Radio, but, Angel says, it never has sold enough CDs to make any money.

The band website jokes: “Some people describe our music as Americana or traditional; others call it soft rock with a hint of country and rockabilly. Others just say ‘Arghh!’ when they hear it. No matter. Our songs are stories about love and life.” 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.