Jessica Jane Barnes

Assistant Professor, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona


Find a supportive mentor (or a network of mentors).

What do you do?

I'm a University professor which means I get to teach undergraduate and graduate students but most of my time is spent doing research. In my research, I use sophisticated laboratory equipment to study extraterrestrial materials like meteorites and Moon rocks. I am currently studying the history encoded in volcanic rocks from the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon. I am also getting ready to analyze samples that will be returned by NASA's Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission from asteroid (101955) Bennu in 2023.

Why did you choose this field?

Honestly, I didn't know what I wanted to really do in my career until I was a few years past PhD. I loved chemistry, physics, and geography in high school and I was split between becoming a medical doctor or a volcanologist...I know very different! I decided to do a geography undergrad degree but ended up switching in my second year to geoscience. At the end of my undergrad I started looking into masters courses but I would have had to pay for it which I wasn't in a financial position to do. I then learned that I could apply to a PhD program instead, as sometimes programs select students straight out of undergrad. I applied to many different programs (6 or 7) and made it to a few interviews but didn't get offered any. The last interview I was invited to seemed promising: the project sounded awesome (involving fieldwork in Norway), the advisor was nice, the department seemed welcoming, the people friendly, and the interview itself seemed to go ok. But the potential advisor called me less than 24 hrs later to inform me that I wasn't shortlisted. I was gutted! But he did inform me that he had another project that I should consider and that he thought I'd make a strong candidate for. It wasn't terrestrial geology but was a project to look for water in Moon rocks using a new state-of-the-art analytical technique. Needless to say, I was very interested! I applied and miraculously got the studentship. Since then I have been emersed in planetary science, geology, and space exploration. It's an exciting field offering interactions with and opportunities in higher education, research, commercial and private industry, and space agencies.

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

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I'd get to work at NASA. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to do a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love discovering new things, especially in samples that are as old as the solar system and that many people before me have studied for decades.

Best advice for next generation?

Find a supportive mentor (or a network of mentors), someone who you can bounce ideas off of, can give you information/insights into career pathways and options, or just someone to ask their experience/advice. They don't have to be at your institution. Life in STEM is not without its challenges but there are a lot of great people out there who know the value in training, nurturing, and supporting the next generation.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

One of many, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” Nelson Mandela

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