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Not everyone who studies outer space has to get in a rocket ship.  Jamie Molaro is a PhD. Candidate at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL). How cool is that? She studies other planets from right here on Earth! Well, we just thought that was about the most awesome ever, so of course we had to learn more.

1. Hi Jamie!! We hear your current research focuses on “rock breakdown due to thermoelastic stresses on airless bodies.” What does that mean? 

I know that sentence is a mouthful! I’ll break it down for you (no pun intended). Basically my research focuses on what types of processes cause rocks on other planets to break down into dust over time. On Earth, there’s a lot of what we call “weathering processes,” where things break down from rain, ice, wind, and sunlight. Everyone has probably observed this at some point. If you’ve ever left something outside in the yard for too long you might have noticed it begin to lose color, weaken, disintegrate, or rust. Geologists study weathering to learn about how rocks break down into dirt over time, and what impact this has on the shape of a landscape and its ecology. Engineers study weathering to help us figure out how to make things like buildings, roads, and other infrastructure last longer and be safer.

The question I’m interested in answering is, what happens to rocks on planets that don’t have “weather”? Not every planetary body in the solar system has an atmosphere! Without an atmosphere, you don’t have wind, rain, and ice to cause weathering, but you do still have the sun. Our atmosphere protects us somewhat from the sun, but bodies like the Moon, Mercury, and asteroids have nothing to shield them. These surfaces experience very extreme temperatures, getting very hot during the day, and very cold at night. As rocks on the surface heat and cool, they expand and contract (that’s the “thermoelastic” part), generating high stresses that can cause cracks to form and eventually break the rock into smaller pieces. I study how this process works to try to understand how it has caused the surfaces of these planetary bodies to change over time.


2. Can you explain your process? How do you research rocks on other planets?

I wish I could go to the Moon and study the rocks there, but unfortunately I’m stuck on Earth. We send spacecraft out to different parts of the solar system to collect data since we can’t go in person. They can take pictures of surfaces, tell us what the rocks are made of, what temperature they are, and many other useful things! Scientists use this data in a lot of different ways depending on what their research is. The observations we make from this data help guide what we want to study about a given planet. For example, I might observe that there are more rocks and boulders on one asteroid than on another. This would lead me to question why that is, and try to build an experiment that provides an answer.

Most of what I do is called numerical modeling. I build computer models that use what we understand about physics to simulate the behavior of the rocks. For example, I built a model that calculates the temperature of a rock throughout the day on Earth. The model takes, as input, the amount of sunlight hitting the surface of the rock over time. It calculates how much heat is absorbed by the rock, how much it reflects, and how long it takes for the heat to propagate down into the middle. So I can watch how in the morning the rock begins to heat up, and as the day goes on the rock gets hotter and hotter, until the sun begins to set and the rock begins to cool down again. Then perhaps I want to model a rock on a planet twice as far away. I can change the amount of sunlight the rock is getting, and watch how the behavior of the rock changes.

As I build a model, I also want to verify that what it’s doing is correct. I can compare the temperatures produced by the model to the temperatures recorded by spacecraft to make sure they are correct. If they are, then I can be confident that the model will correctly predict temperatures for rocks on planets that I don’t have spacecraft data for.


3. That sounds awesome! At the Digits we love math and science. How do you use math in all of this research? 

I use math every day in my work, but perhaps not like you would expect. When we study physics, there are equations that describe physical processes. One equation I use, for example, is called the Heat Conduction Equation. This equation describes how heat moves around inside an object, or is transferred between objects. You could use it to calculate how long it would take to cook a turkey or defrost something in the microwave, or how fast ice would melt sitting in the sun. I use these types of equations to build my computer models to make them realistic. This isn’t the same as doing a math problem on a piece of paper like in a homework problem (although when I’m brainstorming I do a lot of that too!). These calculations would be too difficult or take too long for a person to do by hand. However, if I understand how the math works, I can program a computer to use the equations, and then it can do the calculations for me.


4. Pavi is an earthling who loves math. Did you always love math and science as a kid? 

Well, I think the answer to this question is yes, but I didn’t realize it. When I was very young, I was always curious. I liked to build things and know how things worked. I wanted to know why things are the way they way are. I liked learning about rocks and volcanoes, animals, plants, you name it! However, I’m not sure that I ever identified as liking science at that age because I didn’t realize exactly what science was. I thought being a scientist was wearing a lab coat and playing with colored liquid in chemistry beakers. I didn’t really comprehend the idea that there are different kinds of science that you can use to explore or explain anything. I didn’t realize that wanting to do science was wanting to ask and answer all those questions I had.

It wasn’t until I got into middle school and high school that I started really beginning to understand how I could apply the math and science I was learning in my classes to target and explore specific interests, topics, or questions. I think at that point I realized they were things I had always enjoyed, and wanted to learn more about.


5. So how did you decide on planetary science? 

It wasn’t until high school that it occurred to me that I might want to be a scientist. I had a really excellent physics teacher, Mr. Hughes. He was a really great teacher. He taught patiently, and we did a lot of hands-on projects to help us understand the concepts. What I loved most about him was that he taught with a lot of humor, always thinking of funny examples to explain concepts. He also used to draw a top hat on every picture or diagram, whether it was of a person, a tree, or a bicycle. These things weren’t important to learning the science itself, but it made me look forward to going to class, and in the process I learned how much I enjoyed physics. Enjoying his classes made me really consider becoming a scientist myself, an idea I had never thought about before. Also during high school, I managed to get a weekend job at a local children’s science museum. I really enjoyed this work because it allowed me to share my newfound love of science with others, both adults and kids. My mentors there encouraged me to lead tour groups and participate in designing and building exhibits.

So in college I got a Bachelor’s degree in physics thinking I might go into astronomy, but landed in planetary science in graduate school. I like planetary science because it’s a very interdisciplinary field. We have physicists, geologist, chemists, engineers, and even some biologists who all work together. Every planet is different and has something new and different to study, so there are endless applications of my math and science skills to learn about new places and processes in the solar system.


6. Sometimes our young female viewers can get intimidated by what is stereotypically a “boys’ field.” What advice or encouragement can you give them, as someone who does such great work in science?

It’s really easy to just tell young women that they shouldn’t be intimidated by the idea of entering a field like science or engineering that seems like a “boys’ field.” But the fact of the matter is, telling someone not to be intimidated doesn’t make it easy to get over that feeling. I totally understand what it feels like, and it can be really difficult to overcome. There are a lot of social pressures that tell women they should act a certain way, and be interested in certain things. It can be hard to ignore those pressures, hard to go against the grain of some of your peers you may be afraid will judge you. Feeling like you fit in with your peer group is a serious and important part of life at that age. However, I try to encourage all young people to stay true to themselves while they navigate where that might be. If you are interested in science, engineering, or math, try to find other peers (young women or men) either in your school or in the community who share those interests so that you have a group of people you can share your enthusiasm with.

Many young women also don’t believe that they are capable of being a scientist. This is often an unconscious effect on young women that others can help with by finding ways to encourage and promote their self-confidence, and by exposing them to female role models.  I can tell you from personal experience that women are just as capable of being good at math and science as men. In fact, I go to school with about 30 other graduate students, and more than half of them are women. More and more women are entering careers in science, engineering, programming and other “predominantly male” fields every year. Like any skill, there are both women and men who excel in math and science, and both women and men who choose to study other things. Being good at math and science doesn’t require some magical innate ability you are born with, it requires dedication and study just like anything else you learn in school. If you think you want to become a scientist or engineer, don’t trick yourself into thinking you can’t!

I guess the only other advice I can give you is to find women scientists to talk to. I know that sounds like it must be difficult, but if you see a news article about a scientific discovery that is interesting to you, look up the email address of the person who did the research and send them a message. You can also think of a topic you are interested in, and go onto the website of a university to find someone (a female faculty member or even a student like me) who does that kind of research. Perhaps you don’t know what kind of science you might be interested in, so email multiple scientists! We are very nice and approachable people, and we love to hear about young people (especially young women) getting interested in our fields. Many scientists will be more than happy to answer questions you might have about their research, what they did to become a scientist, or how they overcame some of the difficulties to getting to where they are. You might make some friends, or if any of the scientists are local, there may be ways to get involved in helping with their research. So be brave, don’t be afraid to communicate with us!


7. The Art of Planetary Science exhibition seems awesome! Tell us about your involvement in that! 

The Art of Planetary Science is an art exhibition I founded and organized last year, at which we displayed science themed artwork. Science is often perceived as dull and boring. To scientists, however, the universe is beautiful, elegant, and inspiring, and we see that in the research we do and the data we analyze. The goal of this exhibition was to show a new side of science to the public by displaying artwork that scientists made out of scientific data they used in their research. Some examples of this were telescope images of the sun, microscope images of meteorites, and artistic visualizations of equations or patterns in science and the solar system.

We also displayed art by local artists that was inspired by planetary science. We had a variety of mediums represented as well, including photos, paintings, sculptures, textiles, glasswork, and film. It was a very successful event in helping the local science and art communities make meaningful connections with each other and with the public. We displayed over 150 pieces of art, from more than 70 artists and scientists. You can see pictures of the event on our website

We are currently planning for our Second Annual Art of Planetary Science event, which will be in October this year. I am very much looking forward to making the event bigger and better. I have a larger team of students helping me this year who are excited about further developing the event and getting ready take over next year after I graduate. So that will be a lot of fun!


8. Do you have any other upcoming events or projects you’re especially excited about?

Besides the Art of Planetary Science event, I’m also developing a brand new class offered through my department this year called Introduction to Planetary Science for STEM Teachers. It is designed as a course for working high-school and middle-school teachers to give them a basic framework for understanding the structure and nature of the solar system and its components. Planetary science is really fascinating and exciting to learn about. We hope the teachers will take what they’ve learned and incorporate aspects of planetary science into their curriculum, whether they are teaching geology, physics, chemistry, or math. Getting students excited about planetary science in their classes might encourage more students to consider it as a career, or at the very least we hope it will serve as an example of how math and science can be used in exciting and inspiring ways.


9. The One-Minute Long Song is exactly one minute long. What’s an average minute like at work for you?

Hmmmm, this is a tough one! What I’m doing from minute to minute changes a lot. Scientific research is often done in stages. For me, my stages might be creating a model that simulates physical behavior of a rock. A minute in this stage would be writing a line of computer code, and testing it to make sure it is working and produces realistic results. The next stage would be to collect all of the information I can learn from my model. I try to analyze what it can tell me about all rocks, not just the rock in the model. A minute in this stage usually involves me staring at a chart or plot I’ve created and thinking really hard. The last stage of work is to write a paper that will be published in a scientific journal, so a minute in this stage means writing about your experiment so you can share what you have learned with others.

So, that’s more than one answer, but I have many minutes in my job. That’s part of what I enjoy about it! Going from stage to stage and experiment to experiment means you never get bored of what you’re doing. There’s always something new and exciting to do next!