My scientific story
3.5 years into college, I had to find a new major. I had injured my hands and couldn't continue my music major (see my Music page for details), so I began exploring other subjects. I needed one more science credit to fulfill the general degree requirements at my university, so I signed up for an accelerated summer astronomy course. I didn't know anything about astronomy and I had zero interest in it, so I didn't even bother to buy the textbook for the class: I figured I would just read the library course-reserve copy. Well, 15 minutes into the first class (taught by the charismatic Dr. Robert Zimmerman), I was a born-again space enthusiast. I was simply mesmerized by the grandeur of space. The moment class was over, I ran to the bookstore and bought the textbook, and I read it cover to cover. I changed my major the very next day. My interest was in planetary science (specifically Mars), but since UO didn't offer a planetary science degree, I decided to major in geophysics, to build a strong foundation in the core components of planetary research: geology, physics, math, and chemistry.
Thanks to the guidance and encouragement of UO professors Dr. Robert Zimmerman, Dr. Paul Wallace, and Dr. Harve Waff, I was accepted into a summer research program by the end of my first year in science. Summer of 2002, I went to the University of Arkansas to do research at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences. I was selected to work for a geology professor there, studying Mars surface processes. Perfect! I flew into Fayetteville brimming over with excitement and enthusiasm. It was my first time in the South and I was so happy to be there. The first words uttered to me in Arkansas were spoken by a mini-mart clerk: I asked him how he was doing, to which he replied, "I'm finer than a frog's hair split four ways." Perfect! My happiness mounted as I arrived on the beautiful University of Arkansas campus: stately buildings, gorgeous landscaping, and positively overrun by rabbits (I counted 150 before I stopped keeping track). I entered my professor's office and introduced myself with a big happy grin. She chatted amiably for fifteen minutes before casually stating, "By the way, I'm going to Washington DC for the whole summer, so here's a key to my office, and good luck." She left the next day, and I was left on my own, without having any research experience to guide me. Perfect. I heaved a heavy sigh and went to the library, and I collected a giant stack of books and journals about Mars. I spent two solid weeks reading everything I could find about Mars, and then I started working.
Being thrown into the deep-end without any guidance turned out to be a good thing, because it allowed me to take a fresh, novel approach to my research. As a result, I ended up publishing an innovative theory about water on Mars which rocked the world and put me in the center of a small media frenzy. Dr. David Whitehouse, the science editor for BBC News Online was the first to contact me for an interview, and I originally deleted his e-mail without opening it because I assumed it was spam ("David Whitehouse would like to interview you" -- yeah right!). But curiosity got the better of me and prompted me to open his third consecutive email. After the BBC article came out, I was contacted by news and media organizations all over the world. I received a lot of fan mail and even some hate mail (which was even more fun than the fan mail!). I presented my theory at the 2003 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference to a standing-room-only crowd of planetary scientists from around the world. I was approached by numerous scientists interested in doing collaborations. I was also commissioned by Astronomy to write an article for their June 2004 issue. That article I wrote for Astronomy (entitled "Does Mars have flowing water?") went on to be used in a couple textbooks, and also earned me a nomination for the 2004 AGU Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism.
The following summer (2003), I worked at Caltech doing research for planetary scientist Dr. Oded Aharonson. What a privilege it was to work at one of the most powerful intellectual institutions in the world. Spending the summer at Caltech was like living in a group-home for geniuses. (I got the sense the intense coursework and research there are simply activities designed to keep the geniuses from getting bored and causing mischief--which they do love.) Quite an amazing collection of people; I learned so much and had a transformative experience.
I graduated from University of Oregon in 2004 with a B.S. in Geophysics. The day after graduation, I flew to Houston, Texas to begin my internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, in conjunction with NASA (Johnson Space Center). I worked on the Menez Gwen project: movie director James Cameron had taken an international crew of scientists and astronauts with him to the Menez Gwen deep-sea hydrothermal vent field for six months, to see what new science they could discover while filming his movie, Aliens of the Deep (2005). Submersibles sent out little robotic probes to collect rock, water, soil, and biological samples. One of the samples captured the intrigue of the geologists involved: a basaltic rock with a layer made up of thousands of tiny (3-4 mm diameter), uniform, spherical concretions sandwiched in the middle of it. I was assigned to work on this rock to solve the mystery of these spherules. Under the supervision of Carl Allen, Kelly Snook, and (the late, great) Dave McKay, I conducted various types of analyses on this rock, and found that the spherules, beneath their hematite weathering rind, were made of pure iron metal! This was an astonishing result, because nature very seldom produces pure iron (the presence of oxygen immediately oxidizes iron)--especially not at the bottom of the ocean. In order to delve deeper into this mystery, I sent a sample to our Australian team members, whose lab tests showed that the composition of our spherules was identical to a certain grade of human-made steel. This was truly puzzling because this was a completely remote area of the ocean not traversed by humans, except for a couple French scientific missions in the nearby area. I did some research and found that submarine vehicles sometimes use iron ballast pellets to control their buoyancy. From here, I contacted the lead of the French expeditions and found that their submersible (The Nautile) does indeed use 3-mm iron ballast. He kindly sent me a sample of their ballast pellets, which I analyzed and matched up to our spherules. Mystery solved! It was disappointing that our fascinating spherules turned out to be mere ballast pellets, but it was still a pretty interesting occurrence: an underwater volcano produced a pillow of lava, and submersible ballast pellets dropped into this lava just as it was cooling. The pellets sank to the middle of the lava before it hardened completely, thus entrapping them in the center of the newly-formed rock. A fascinating consolation prize!
Added to the excitement of working on the Menez Gwen project, James Cameron actually flew me out to his production studio in Malibu, California to help edit some film footage for Aliens of the Deep. Mr. Cameron was extremely intelligent, warm, and kind, with a very impressive knowledge of science and an intense passion for exploration and pursuit of knowledge. It was an incredible honor working for him.
After the summer ended, NASA offered me a permanent job. My main role was doing Mission Support for the Genesis Mission. The Genesis spacecraft flew for seven years around the Sun to collect solar particles in its collector arrays. The arrays contained 300 wafers made of various materials, including diamond, sapphire, and gold. Upon returning to Earth, the return capsule was supposed to deploy a parachute, which would be caught on a hook on the front of a helicopter flown by a Hollywood stunt pilot, which would then safely land on the ground. The pilots had practiced this maneuver many times and performed flawlessly. Unfortunately, they never got a chance to make it happen with the actual Genesis spacecraft. Due to improperly-installed gravity sensors, the trigger to release the parachutes was never activated, and we all watched in horror as our beloved return capsule crashed into the Utah desert at a speed of 200 mph. As a result of the crash, the 300 wafers were smashed into more than 10,000 pieces. The recovery crew spent a month in Utah picking shards out of the dirt with tweezers and frantically shoving them into baggies, trying to keep their tears from falling on the samples.
Dr. Eileen Stansbery asked me to go through every one of the 10,000+ Genesis samples, to identify what they were and create a database connecting all the samples, photos, logbook descriptions, and sample ID numbers. It was a monster job because the data were scattered and disorganized in a horrifying fashion. Some samples had photos but no ID numbers; some had multiple photos with conflicting ID numbers; some had no photos and no ID numbers. It took a powerful lot of detective work and intense concentration to sort it all out. I got to know those ornery little samples like they were family members. By the end of the year, I completed the Genesis database. Now scientists can look through the inventory of samples and find exactly what they need for their research.
I also did Mission Support for Apollo missions 15, 16, and 17 (under the direction of Dr. Gary Lofgren). Up until then, the only records of the Lunar samples brought back from those missions were in old, hand-typed books with black-and-white photocopies of the rock photos; there were no back-ups in case the books were lost or destroyed. So I went to work creating electronic versions of these catalogs. I had to re-type much the text because the text recognition software did a poor job of interpreting the blobby typewriter print. I scanned in the rock photos and fixed them up using Photoshop (cropped the images and inserted sample numbers and scale bars). Then I put the text and the photos together and formatted them exactly like the old print catalogs to create PDFs. It was an incredible experience getting so intimately acquainted with all those Moon rocks, and now the world has electronic versions of the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 catalogs.
Summer of 2005, I left Johnson Space Center to join the operations team for HiRISE, the ultra high-resolution camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The Mission Operations center for HiRISE is located at the University of Arizona Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, so I moved to Tucson, Arizona. NASA flew us out to Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch our rocket launch, and we spent a week at Kennedy Space Center as they sent our beloved rocket into space. It was absolutely surreal to watch it leaving Earth and realize that we were sending it to another planet. We all had tears streaming down our faces as we cheered and waved goodbye to our baby.
The HiRISE camera took the highest-resolution images humans had ever seen outside our planet. This camera is powerful enough to resolve objects just a few feet across, and the images are gargantuan (20,000 pixels wide and as much as 400,000 pixels long). HiRISE also takes color and 3D images of Mars. I was the Downlink Operations Lead for HiRISE, which means I was in charge of downloading the images from the spacecraft, processing them, and distributing them to the world (among other things). This was an exciting job because I got to interface directly with a live spacecraft and work with the top scientists and engineers in the space industry. And I got to see the new images of Mars before anyone else in the world.
I eventually decided to leave Mars and return to the world of music. But I cherish my years in the space program, and it was the experience of a lifetime. I passed through the global spotlight with a groundbreaking theory about water on Mars; I worked with original Apollo mission team members to bring the Apollo lunar data into the electronic age; I managed the first pieces of the Sun we've ever brought back to Earth; I analyzed samples from a volcano at the deepest depths of the ocean yet explored by humans; I sent a rocket into space; I was the first to see areas of Mars never witnessed by human eyes; and I downloaded and processed more data from Mars than the data of all other planetary programs in history combined. What an exciting ride!