Appreciating Life in All its Forms

Inspired by a Tar Heel Footprint

Tori Hoehler has experienced life all around the world, and is now looking for it on other planets. As a research scientist for NASA, Hoehler is able to combine his love for the water, affinity for chemistry and curiosity about life forms on other planets.

Hoehler was born in the Bahamas, which is where his love for the water began. “I could swim before I could walk,” he says. “It's not purely coincidental that I ended up studying oceanography.”

As a fifth-grader, Hoehler wrote a letter to NASA because he was fascinated by the vastness of the universe. He was thrilled when NASA responded with a package of glossy photographs taken by the space probe Voyager 2 as it flew past Jupiter, and he eagerly showed them off for a class project.

Tori Hoehler

Tori Hoehler

Every summer in his childhood, Hoehler would spend a couple of months at his grandparents' lake cottage in Canada, the perfect place for a science kid to experience nature and feed his curiosity. He describes his grandfather as his “own personal Mr. Wizard” who would answer questions about the natural world like what lived under rocks, where it came from, and how life begins.

Hoehler's love for travel began at 13, when his family moved to Germany for four years, and had continued since with opportunities to travel widely. While he was worried at first about moving to a different country, Hoehler learned that different places and people are in fact very much the same. “One way to connect with people is to find commonalities so that you can celebrate the differences,” he says.

Hoehler's favorite saying about travel is a quote from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

After high school graduation, Hoehler chose to work on a cruise ship for a year before heading to college, repeating a one-week loop from Miami to St. Martin, St. Thomas, St. John, and a small private island in the Bahamas. His time on the ship taught him many life lessons, and by the time the year was over he was reinvigorated and excited to get back to school.

Once he completed his undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hoehler chose to continue straight into a doctoral program in Marine Sciences. He was one of the first Royster fellows at Carolina, and credits the fellowship for connecting students from different programs to help them learn more collectively. “The Royster program really made an effort to have fellows interact,” he says. “Having the fellowship span all sorts of disciplines was great because each mind and field will approach the same idea in different ways.”

“It is so easy to see where you are now as a stepping stone to where you want to be, but at every point of your life there is something unique and valuable that you aren't going to get back.”

Hoehler also received the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship and worked as a teaching assistant to help fund his education. His current work at NASA is mainly in characterizing life in unusual and extreme environments on Earth, but he is also increasingly involved in planning and operations for missions to planets elsewhere in the solar system and beyond. When the Mars Science Laboratory mission commences operations on Mars this August, Hoehler will be a part of the team that works to determine whether conditions there could have supported life in the distant past.

He has utilized the research skills he acquired in graduate school in his daily work. “There is so much value you can extract out of graduate education,” he says. “It is so easy to see where you are now as a stepping stone to where you want to be, but at every point of your life there is something unique and valuable that you aren't going to get back. You have to do your best to recognize what those things are—the people around you, context you're in, or resources you have—that you should wrap your arms around and savor.”

Hoehler recently went back to his grandparents' house in Canada, finding that now he plays Mr. Wizard for his 6-year-old son. But when his son goes inside at sunset, you can still find Hoehler wandering the lakeshore, looking under rocks, always hoping to learn more.

♦ Cindy J. Austin