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Alexandra Davatzes

December 21, 2010
Alexandra DavatzesDr. Alexandra Davatzes is a newly appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Temple University.  Davatzes studies Archaen meteorite deposits and has worked with the HiRise team on MRO.  Her most recent paper is:
  • Krull-Davatzes, Alexandra E., Gary R. Byerly, and Donald R. Lowe.  Evidence for a low-O2 Archean atmosphere from nickel-rich chrome spinels in 3.24 Ga impact spherules, Barberton greenstone belt, South Africa.  EPSC Lett 296 (2010): 319-328.
This interview was conducted by email.
1. How did you first become intersted in space science?
Early on in college, I was taking a biology class and an earth history class, and in both of those classes, we discussed the problems and unknowns in studies of the origins of life.  That is when I first started to become interested in Astrobiology.  Then, while doing a Sophomore Keck Research Project one summer in college, led by Eric Grosfils, Linda Reinen, Martha Gilmore and Sam Kozak, I started to realize that I could have a career doing research in space science.  I had a great time working with two other undergrads on studies of lava flows on Venus, and I remember all of us in the project watching with excitement as Mars Pathfinder landed successfully.  We wrote up our research and I went to my first scientific conference, LPSC, and presented a poster.  By then I was hooked.
2. How did you get involved with HiRise?
I was in the last year of graduate school at Stanford when I started to work with Virginia Gulick on Education/Public Outreach (EPO) for the HiRISE camera on MRO, which at that time was on its way to Mars.  I had been involved in a number of outreach projects at Stanford and the crossover between working on planetary science and EPO really fit my interests well, so when Ginny asked my advisor if he knew of anyone that might be interested, I jumped at the opportunity.  Fortunately NASA Ames is very close to Stanford, so I could do that while writing up my thesis.  I finished my Ph.D. right around the time that MRO started its primary science phase, and I stayed on with Ginny to do a postdoc.  I was very lucky to be funded by the ORAU NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship
3. Why is the Archaen Earth is a good analog for Mars?
Because of my interests in Astrobiology, I wanted to study what the early Earth environment was like. By understanding how and where life was able to grab hold on Earth, maybe we can figure out if, when, and where Mars was habitable too.  The Archean Earth is so different from what we know and understand about the Earth today, so like Mars it is a completely foreign environment.
4. Tell us a little about your research in geoscience education. 
I have always been interested in how people learn, and ways to get young people interested in science.  I was lucky to have a wonderful, strong female science teacher in middle school that told me that I was good at science, and she is certainly the reason I am a scientist today.  I want students to not be afraid of science, and to understand the process of science, even if it is not their chosen career.  I really loved working on a number of the EPO programs with Ginny for HiRISE including the HiRISE Image Targeting Challenge, where students from all over the world suggest targets for HiRISE to image Mars and then write figure captions to go along with the images, as well as the coloring books and activity books posted on the site.  It was so exciting to work on a project where kids in 3rd grade were actively coming up with real scientific questions and suggesting targets on Mars to answer them.  Science became “real”, not just a problem in a lab book.  At Temple I have been able to work with some education students and faculty on a variety of projects, largely focused on encouraging science participation in underrepresented groups. 
5. What advice do you have for undergraduate or graduate students?
The advice that I always give any undergraduate or graduate student that asks is: “Take more math!”.  The second bit of advice that I always give is based on an article I read called “The Importance of Stupidity in Research” by Martin Schwartz in the Journal of Cell Science.  I tell my grad students that it is okay to feel dumb, and as a scientist we should embrace the feeling of stupidity because if it is easy we aren’t challenging ourselves and we aren’t moving the science further.  You’ll never have an “Aha!” moment if you don’t struggle with a problem for a while first!
Thanks, Alexandra!
Dr. Davatzes is being featured here as one of 51 Women in Planetary Science, a series of interviews with successful women scientists on career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success. Questions or suggestions for future interviews can be sent to us directly or to our email list, which all women in planetary science can join!
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