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Tasha Dunn: I teach planetary geology every spring, and I love it!

August 3, 2010

Tasha DunnTasha Dunn is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography-Geology at Illinois State University.  This is my first conversation with Tasha; she volunteered for this feature just like you can do — and we invite you to do so!  Tasha talked with us about her career, her work, and her favorite part of the day.  Her 2010 publications are listed at the end of the article.

1. What first drew you to space science?

Like many kids, I was fascinated by outer space. I grew up wanting to be an astronaut, so everything I did while I was in school was with that goal in mind. I took advanced math and science classes in high school and decided to major in engineering in college. Many early astronauts had degrees in engineering, including one of my personal role models as a young girl, Judy Resnick, a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger’s last mission in 1986. Once I got into college, I realized I didn’t like engineering very much at all. It was just too much advanced math and physics, and that didn’t really interest me.  I needed to find something else that I could study that would still be suitable for a career with NASA, and science was the obvious choice. When I was trying to decide which field of science to pursue, I looked at a couple of geology textbooks and thought that it looked much more interesting than chemistry of physics, so I switched my major to geology. Eventually, I found out that people actually studied geology of planets other than Earth, so it made perfect sense to study planetary geology in graduate school. It really is the perfect fit for me.

2. I’m intrigued by the change you made from remote sensing to meteoritics.  At what stage of your career did you make this transition, and how did it affect your affinity for your research?

When I got to grad school I didn’t have a very good idea of what I wanted to do; I just knew I wanted to study geology of someplace other than Earth. My advisor was involved in research on Mars and on meteorites, so I got to choose between the two.  At the time, Mars seemed more exciting, so I decided to do a remote-sensing based project rather than a petrology-based one.  In the process of completing my master’s degree, I realized that remote sensing by itself was a little too abstract for me; I wanted to spend more time studying real rocks. So, for my Ph.D. I shifted my focus to meteorites. Though I’m very happy with my choice, I’m still glad I did the master’s project that I did.  I gave me a ton of experience using remote sensing, and that’s great because it’s such an important part of planetary geology. In fact, I did some work with VISNIR spectra of ordinary chondrites for part of my dissertation, so I haven’t gotten away from it completely. I think it’s important to be able to use remote sensing data and geochemical/ mineralogical data together effectively.

3. Congratulations on being an Assistant Professor just two years out of graduate school!  What attracted you to Illinois State University?

Initially the faculty attracted me to ISU.  I had a  short interview with two of the geology faculty at GSA in 2008 and had a great meeting with them. In addition to being easy to talk to and enthusiastic about the program, they seemed so happy. That’s not always true in academia!  After doing some of my own research, I discovered that ISU was a good fit for me. I was looking for an academic position at a teaching university where I could continue to pursue my research agenda, and ISU is the perfect balance between the two. In addition, ISU is very supportive of my planetary geology research interests.  It was actually one of the reasons they were interested in hiring me.  Though my primary teaching responsibilities are mineralogy and petrology, I was encouraged to develop my own courses.  So, now I teach planetary geology every spring, and I love it!

4. What are the implications of your latest paper?  That is, how would you explain it to a visiting scientist in three sentences or less?

Oh, that’s a tough question! I always have a hard time summarizing things, but I think I would say something like this:

We know that asteroids experienced heating when they formed, but we still don’t know exactly what conditions they experienced when this occurred. I examined the minerals that are present in ordinary chondrites, which are pieces of certain asteroids, and looked for changes that took place as they experienced this heating. Using the changes in mineral abundances, I discovered that ordinary chondrite parent asteroids experience oxidation as heating progresses.  Because ordinary chondrites come from primitive asteroids, we can use this information to understand the conditions of the early solar system.

Oops, that was more than three sentences!

5. Tell us something else about yourself that has nothing to do with work.

I have three cats, one of which is named after the mineral Albite. The other two don’t have geology-related names, but I love them none the less. One of my favorite parts of the day is coming home to see them waiting for me at the front door. I like to think they are happy to see me, but they’re probably just hungry and know that I will feed them.

Tasha Dunn’s 2010 peer-reviewed papers include:

Thank you, Tasha!  I enjoyed meeting you and hope we run into each other at a conference next year!

If you’d like to be featured as one of our 51 Women in Planetary Science, send in an abstract of a recently published paper and we’ll send you some questions. If you’re a student, send in a question and we’ll forward it to successful women scientists who can answer your questions about career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success.  This feature will run every Tuesday and Friday, as long as we have submissions.

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