I work as a Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. My job is very interdisciplinary but generally revolves around operating rover missions on Mars – the ultimate remote work experience! I’m involved in two Mars rover missions: the Curiosity rover and the Perseverance rover. Curiosity has been on Mars since 2012 and is still going strong! I help make decisions about what the rover is going to do, for example: where to drive to, what to take photos of, what to shoot the laser at. Being able to see brand-new, never-before-seen images of Mars is by far the best part of being on the Curiosity team!
The Perseverance rover is NASA’s latest Mars rover that is scheduled to launch THIS summer and land on Mars in February 2021. We are very busy making preparations for surface operations for when Perseverance lands on Mars. This involves a lot of rover hardware testing to figure out how the rover will drill and collect rock and regolith samples. We’re also busy training the science team to be able to operate the rover smoothly once it lands. To do this, we’ve had a few field training exercises to simulate the rover operations procedures. Rover teams are made up of hundreds of scientists and engineers from all over the world, so teamwork and communication are the most important factors in making NASA missions successful.
Since we can’t send people to Mars just yet, sending car-sized rovers is the next best thing to help us get closer to answering fundamental questions about the Red Planet: Did Mars host environments that may have supported life in the past? Did life ever evolve on Mars? How has Mars’ climate evolved over time? What can the geologic rock record on Mars tell us about ancient environments and how they’ve changed over time? How can we prepare to send humans to Mars?
I first became interested in science and NASA when I was in high school and had the opportunity to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. A lifelong athlete, I really enjoy teamwork-oriented jobs, which is why jobs in mission operations have always appealed to me. My advice to young, aspiring scientists would be that if you find something that truly inspires you, pursue it! Meet new people, ask questions, and never stop exploring!
Follow Rachel’s updates on her website, Twitter, or Instagram! Another website folks might be interested in: NASA’s Mars exploration website. It’s frequently updated with rover mission updates and has tons of info about past, present, and future missions to Mars: https://mars.nasa.gov/
As an avid outdoorsman, getting my degree in geology was the best decision I have ever made. Because of this degree, I currently work as a geology field technician with the US Forest Service in Southeast Alaska. My job focuses on the conservation of karst, a landscape characterized by soluble (easily dissolved) bedrock that often contains caves, sinkholes, springs, and complex subsurface hydrologic networks. Karst ecosystems are exceptionally productive for wildlife, but also sensitive to runoff caused by logging, road building, waste management, and farming. My position in Alaska mostly focuses on potential logging units, since that is the main economic driver and logging near karst features often produces sediment runoff that can inundate karst systems and cause adverse hydrologic, biologic, and ecologic effects on the forest ecosystem.
I first came to southeast Alaska the summer after my senior year of undergrad, having been offered an exciting GeoCorps internship as a cave guide through a partnership with Geological Society of America (GSA) and the US Forest Service. This position, located on Prince of Wales Island, greatly helped me solidify and communicate my passion for geology, particularly the intricate workings of karst geology. I always highly recommend GeoCorps internships to budding geologists and environmental scientists because they expose those with little-to-no experience to potential environmental work in the public sector. It was my GeoCorps position that allowed me to meet Dr. Jim Baichtal, the Forest Geologist for the Tongass National Forest. Jim values my good attitude and enthusiasm for geology and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping, and brought me back to Alaska as a field technician in the beginning of 2017 when I finished my undergraduate degree.
I have remained in this occupation since, and am gearing up to begin my third field season as a Karst Technician in Alaska. While this position is not research-based, I have had extensive opportunity to study the quaternary history of southeast Alaska, focusing on regional to local-scale glacial geomorphology to decipher ice flow patterns during the late Wisconsin Glaciation, which I presented a poster on at the annual GSA conference in 2017. I also know that my job as a tech has greatly sharpened my understanding of geomorphic processes and how they tie into the greater ecology, especially concerning karst landscapes. Much of my position also involves extensive aerial photography interpretation of vegetation and geomorphology prior to entering the area of reconnaissance to determine the “hot spots” for karst features. Aerial photo interpretation has become somewhat less necessary since the recent acquisition of half-meter resolution Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) imagery, considering that most caves, sinkholes, and springs are readily apparent upon inspection of the bare earth digital elevation model (DEM). The LiDAR makes my work easier and less likely for me to miss features, but hardly puts me out of a job, seeing as most of these features still need to be field verified and observed by a specialist to determine their significance and role in the landscape before the area undergoes any land management activities.
As a field tech, I use GIS every day, mostly centered on geologic and karst vulnerability mapping. We use a High-Medium-Low system to describe the vulnerability of the karst terrain; with High being the areas immediately adjacent to, in the direct watershed, or overtop karst features and cave systems, Medium being the expanse in between high vulnerability areas, or “karsty” areas with a low hydrologic head, and Low being karst areas without features directly leading to the subsurface, these are often covered by thick glacial till (sediments left behind by glaciers) or underlain by less soluble bedrock. No logging activity can occur over areas of high vulnerability karst. My field partner and I will enter units with GPS devices to determine this classification and I use our location data and DEM interpretation to update the “karst layer” that is used by land management specialists in the region. The Tongass karst program serves as a management model for many of the National Forests in the country, so playing a key role in the program has been a great honor and learning experience for me.
Working in such an amazing place has definitely had an impact on me. My confidence as a geologist has grown, my navigation skills and competence in hiking rough terrain have developed, I am more comfortable handling responsibility, and my passion for geology and ecology develops every day that I spend contemplating geomorphic processes and geologic history. I believe that I have been especially fortunate to have these experiences, but I would not have gotten to where I am if I hadn’t taken initiative and fully thrown myself into the internships that were available. I now conduct the hiring and interviews for the same GeoCorps position that first brought me here. During college, I was unsure which branch of geology was right for me. It took getting out into the field and immersing myself into a unique environment before I realized exactly where my passions lie, and how I could fit them into the working world. I now plan on attending graduate school this fall for karst hydrogeology, a subject that I would not necessarily have seen myself pursuing 5 years ago. My advice to young geoscientists is to seize opportunity when it presents itself, and dig for opportunity when it doesn’t. Get out of your comfort zone and keep an open mind about how geology plays a role in the world. And finally, when you are applying to jobs or internships, make sure that you give each application your complete effort and attention, even if it might not exactly align with your interests at the time.
I do not have any educational background in a science. Instead, I have a background in video editing. Working in that field taught me how to piece together a story. I use that skill as an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service. My job is to take the research that scientists have gathered and explain it to visitors in a way that is easier to understand. I do this by giving guided tours and presentations. I also pass along this information through informal interactions with the public while staffing a visitor center desk or walking along a trail. I try to find a way to connect visitors to the natural, historic, and cultural resources of a park. When a visitor can relate to a resource, they are far more likely to understand the facts we present to them, and in turn care about the resource. Rangers help make these connections with the use of story-telling, analogies, and metaphors. Through informal interactions with the public, we can learn more about what a visitor might value. This helps us choose the facts and ideas to present to the visitor to help them better connect with the resource.
Explaining climate change and evolution to visitors is part of the job as well. Using interpretive techniques, we are given the opportunity to spark the interest of someone who may deny or simply not understand these concepts. That spark will hopefully lead visitors to research these topics themselves after their visit.
In my experience so far, I have worked at Redwood National and State parks, which contains some of the last 5 percent of old growth coast redwood trees in existence. These are the tallest trees in the world! Most visitors are surprised to hear that the park also contains 40 miles worth of coastline as well. We are lucky to have a fantastic team of scientists with various backgrounds working for the park. Whether it is a question about the redwood canopy, the coastline, or any other ecosystem in the park, interpretive rangers are always reaching out to these scientists as a resource.
My favorite thing about being an interpretive ranger is knowing there is always something new to learn about the park I am representing. I am always excited to develop a new educational program to present, or sneak in an extra fact into a conversation with a visitor. Seeing a visitor’s awestruck reaction lets me know I have done my job correctly and keeps me passionate about my work.
For people interested in a position as an interpretive ranger, I would recommend you start volunteering with your local forest preserves or museums. You can also find work through volunteer.gov. Interpretive certifications can be earned through the National Association for Interpretation and the ProValens Learning program. Never be afraid to ask questions! Rangers want to talk to you and would love to give you advice.
I am a project engineer with a B.S. in civil engineering and an M.S. in traffic engineering, working in the transportation department of a large suburb (150,000 residents). My responsibilities are diverse: overseeing the operation of the city’s 100 traffic signals, addressing and mitigating traffic safety and congestion concerns, reviewing commercial and residential development plans, studying parking trends in the downtown, implementing bicycle routes, meeting with residents, and managing construction projects.
My previous position was as a design engineer for a transportation engineering firm. Working for a consultant is the more typical civil engineer career path. This involved a lot of design work for new roadways, intersection expansions, bike paths, and roundabouts. There was a mixture of creativity (what’s the best way we can solve this traffic congestion?) with traffic engineering principles (at a given design speed, how long should the left turn lane be?). There was also a lot of CAD work: a good engineer needs to be able to produce constructable plan sets that meet the state transportation department’s standards. I eventually left this job because I wanted to have more ownership of projects and to be able to focus on one community instead of various project locations spread throughout the state.
Working in the public sector is a unique challenge for an engineer because it involves many non-technical duties such as presenting project updates to City Council or explaining city ordinances to residents, but still requires a technical background. While there is limited design work as compared to a consulting firm, the satisfaction in creating something from nothing is still present when crafting new policies or establishing long-term development plans. A big part of the reason I set myself on this career path was because I wanted to be able to help the public. My role directly impacts the lives of tens of thousands of people. While it’s definitely behind the scenes, the things I do on a daily basis serve to make residents’ lives safer, more economical, and less frustrating.
My favorite part about being an engineer is knowing about day-to-day things that most people don’t ever stop to consider. Do you know that a traffic signal doesn’t detect a vehicle by weight, but because a car’s metal disrupts the electromagnetic field of a sensor in the pavement? Or do you know that roadways function as ancillary drainage systems and are actually designed to flood after a heavy rainfall in order to keep the water from getting into basements? Or that installing four-way stop signs at intersections can actually increase overall speeding in neighborhoods?
For any young people interested in a career in engineering, I would encourage you to not be intimidated. Engineering has a reputation for being a challenging major in college, but it’s not impossible and it’s not only for the whiz kids. If you find something that interests and excites you, don’t let the fear of failing hold you back. Determination, passion, and attitude will help you reach your goals.