Joy Crisp, PhD
Mars Science Laboratory
Deputy Project Scientist
Who could have guessed that Joy's love of the rock and mountain formations that surround her native Colorado would have led her all the way to Mars?
Well, not quite all the way, but Joy has devoted her career to studying the planet and, as the Curiosity Rover Deputy Project Scientist and in previous roles on other projects, she has participated in the successful landings of four different rover projects on Mars!
This "virtual geologist" studies everything from lava flow and volcanic eruption clouds on Earth to actual rocks on Mars and has worked for one of the largest space exploration agencies in the world.
Nancy asked Joy about her work, what it took to get there, and whether she thinks humans will ever get to visit the planet she loves.
Nancy: It sounds like you've always loved geology—when did that start and how did you pursue this passion?
Joy: I was surrounded by geologic scenic wonders growing up (Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak) and took family vacations to national parks in Utah and Arizona as a kid (Canyonlands, Arches, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, etc.), but I didn't really get interested in the science of geology until I tried an introductory geology class my second year in college.
Nancy: Speaking of college, where do you go to study Mars?
Joy: Well, I studied here on Earth, of course! And I studied Geology. I completed my BA, or undergraduate degree, at Carleton College, and then went on to receive both my master's degree and PhD from Princeton University.
Nancy: And now you study rocks on Mars—how do you do this, since humans can't actually go there?
Joy: I do this as a "virtual" geologist, examining the images and data files sent back from the rovers on my computer (rovers are automated motor vehicles that "drive" across the surface of the planet collecting information and taking pictures). The images and measurements taken by the rovers provide clues to how the rocks and soils on Mars formed and how they have been affected by the conditions and processes on Mars. It's similar to what a geologist does on Earth with their own eyes and lab equipment, but slower to collect the data.
Nancy: Tell us about a super cool rock that most people don't know about.
Joy: Marquette Island is an interesting basketball-sized rock on Mars. The texture of the rock indicates that it cooled slowly from molten rock called "magma." Scientists believe that this rock cooled deep in the crust of Mars, and then was hit by an incoming meteor, causing it to be tossed through the air and landing at the location where the rover Opportunity found it in November 2009, sitting at the surface. This rock gives us a chance to take a look at the "inside" of Mars.
Nancy: What kinds of things do you do on an average day?
Joy: It is hard to define an average day because the things I do vary a lot from day to day. Most days right now, I attend a few of the rover science operations meetings, take a look at the data and images that have come back from Curiosity rover, review the science team's latest plans, and work on plans for improving how the team of hundreds of scientists and engineers carries out daily rover operations.
Nancy: Wow! That sounds like a pretty big responsibility! What is your goal as a scientist? How do you hope all of your work will pay off?
Joy: My goal is to enable the Curiosity science team to carry out the best mission possible, to learn new things about Mars, and to inspire others with the rover's findings.
Nancy: What advice do you have for kids who might like to do what you do one day?
Joy: I recommend that you study hard and try to learn a wide range of things while you are in school, to find out what you're good at and what you really like. Have fun learning!
Nancy: And you know I have to ask this, do you think humans will visit Mars in our lifetime?
Joy: Perhaps, but it's hard to tell right now. It will cost a lot of money, but this kind of an expedition would help expand our understanding of the universe and we could all follow along with the excitement from the images and reports sent back from the explorers. It would stimulate innovations in science and technology that could help us tackle problems in the future. Kids like you might end up being those explorers, or helping to prepare for their expedition, like I do!