• Google Places - Black Circle
  • LinkedIn - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle

Alyssa Mills

Research Assistant, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

 

And - Research Assistant/ Master’s student, University of Alabama (fall 2019)

I love working in STEM because you get to work with the unknown to make it known, answering unsolved questions.

What do you do?

"This work will aid Europa Clipper, a mission to have an orbiter at Europa."

As a research assistant, you are typically assigned a research topic with questions that the lead wants answered, but you can typically also add your own questions to be answered. As a research assistant to Dr. Lynnae Quick, I was assigned to explore the cryovolcanic domes that formed on Europa. More specifically, I am looking at the physical characteristics of the domes like their sizes (area, radius, height, etc), and I try to find if there are patterns of the domes like if they are constricted to a certain area of Europa. Also, I note the physical attributes of the domes to constrain models, so they do not use parameters that do not exist. After exploring correlations and the physical characteristics of the domes, I apply my own flexure (the process of the lithosphere bending from a weight, like a volcano/ dome) models to understand if local thinning exists and heat flow which helps gauge the activity on Europa. This work will aid Europa Clipper, a mission to have an orbiter at Europa, so the team can select specific locations to focus measurements/ imagers to image. This work will also aid any future missions including an Europan lander. 

As a graduate student/ research assistant at the University of Alabama, I will be using the magnetic field data currently available from Messenger, a mission to Mercury, and Galileo, a mission to the Jovian system, to create high resolution crustal magnetic field models for local sections of Mercury and Ganymede. This will be done using the method that my advisor, Dr. Alain Plattner, and Dr. Frederick Simmons which use cognizant gradient vector Slepian functions. We want to learn about the magnetization of a body’s crust to understand crustal geology, regional tectonics, and more. This work will help predict crustal magnetization on Mercury and Ganymede, and it will serve as a precedent to future work that will be done with the European missions (BepiColombo to Mercury and JUICE to Ganymede). 

Why did you choose this field?

"This was a goal I set when I was eight years old because I loved to read astronomy books."

I originally wanted to go into astronomy to work at NASA. As the years progressed, I made sure to go to magnet schools that focused on science. When I was in high school, I was able to participate in a program called WISH which was meant to expose 16 year old females to STEM by interning 2 weeks at Johnson Space Flight Center. This experience furthered my desire to work for NASA, but I knew I would never want to do engineering or computer science. Also, while in high school, I took part in many extracurriculars (e.g. Envirothon) that were more environmental science based as I intended to make environmental science as my minor in college. When I entered college, I declared astronomy as my major but soon realized the original subjects I wanted to pursue in astronomy, black holes and dark matter, were not the best fit for me. Black holes and dark matter require high level physics, and I found I really didn’t like theoretical physics. In this sophomore year, one of my 100 level astronomy courses was primarily focused on the solar system, and this is where I decided I wanted to do planetary science, specifically planetary geology/ geophysics, as I found I enjoyed every lecture’s content (more than I ever did when I learned about galaxies, black holes, etc). Thus I decided I would pursue planetary science, and I confirmed this career by completing a senior thesis about Pluto, enjoying every moment of the research I conducted. 

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

None. I am a very driven individual and started early in this drive, believing I could accomplish anything if I set my mind to it. I knew early on anything is possible, but I didn’t know how quickly I’d accomplish what I wanted. I never expected that I would be working at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum/ NASA Goddard Space Flight Scientist as a researcher right after graduation. 

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love working in STEM because you get to work with the unknown to make it known, answering unsolved questions. I wake up looking forward to becoming the first family member in my entire family lineage to ever have a doctorate’s degree and eventually receiving my dream job at NASA or APL. 

Best advice for the next generation

Keep your head strong. Many people may doubt your abilities, so it is crucial to stay confident in your abilities. Also don’t be afraid to ask for help to build yourself to your greatest potential.

Fun fact

I worked in agronomy as an agronomy field trials assistant at the University of Maryland for 5 years. Essentially field trials are where we research different varieties of a plant (wheat, barley, corn, soybeans, etc) to find which ones perform best under the conditions of the farm’s location, noting disease resistance, drought resistance, etc. This is used for farmers and companies to plant varieties that meet their needs which ultimately comes back to the public for products like flour.