What do you do?
I study the geology of the martian surface to better understand what Mars was like in its distant past. Mars is currently a cold and dry planet and life could not survive at the surface, but we know that there were rivers and lakes present on the surface 3.5-4 billion years ago, based on geologic landforms and minerals that form in the presence of liquid water. A lot of us in the Mars science community want to know if early Mars was habitable to microbial life. I study the minerals that we find in rocks that were deposited by lakes and streams 3.5-4 billion years ago to determine the conditions of that past water (for example, was it salty or fresh, acidic or basic, cool or warm?). I study minerals on the martian surface using data from landed missions (I am the Deputy Principle Investigator of the CheMin instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover), orbital missions, and by looking at minerals in environments on Earth that we think are similar to early Mars (i.e., "analog" environments). I collect rocks and sediments from places like Iceland, Hawaii, and the Cascades to analyze their composition in our laboratories at the NASA Johnson Space Center using some instruments that are similar to those on orbital and landed missions at Mars.
Why did you choose this field?
I always loved science growing up, especially natural sciences. I grew up hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and developed a love of the natural world. When I went to college, I thought I would major in chemistry, but I happened to take a geology class on dinosaur evolution my Freshman year that changed my life. After that class, I decided to major in geology and thought I wanted to be a paleontologist. After taking a variety of geology courses for my major, I realized there are so many interesting aspects of geology and decided that I loved mineralogy. It wasn't until getting accepted into a Ph.D. program at Arizona State University that I started studying Mars geology and mineralogy.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
I wish younger me had known about all of the awesome space missions (especially those to Mars) from 1997 through today.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because I help make new discoveries every day about the martian surface and what it was like ~3.5 billion years ago. It is so amazing to be one of the first people to get to see brand new images and data from Mars. We're studying places that no person has ever seen!
Best advice for next generation?
My advice to the next generation in STEM is to broaden the types of classes you take in high school and college. You may think you know what you want to do, but you may find a subject that you truly love that you didn't even know existed before.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
“If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas.” – Linus Pauling
In science, we come up with a lot of different hypotheses. They aren't always brilliant or correct. Just keep thinking and proposing different ideas and one of them is bound to be a good one.