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Tanya Harrison: Being proactive helps you stand out from the crowd

October 7, 2010
Tanya HarrisonTanya Harrison is an Assistant Staff Scientist at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS).  Her main job duties are targeting the Context Camera (CTX) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), working with Mars Color Imager (MARCI) data, and writing MARCI weather reports. She is a member of the science team for both instruments and a science team collaborator on the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover.  Harrison also does education and public outreach in concert with organizations including Expanding Your Horizons, Girl Scouts, The Mars Society, and The National Space Society
1. What first interested you in space science?

I’ve been interested in space science for almost as long as I can remember. I grew up watching the various Star Trek series (Next Gen started when I was 2), and the idea of studying stars and planets grew from there. Every clear night I would be outside staring at the sky—often without a jacket, much to the annoyance of my parents. As I got older though, I can remember two specific things that bolstered that interest even more. The first was the Mars Pathfinder mission. Seeing photos of Sojourner on the surface of Mars was just fascinating to me. The second was NASA’s Mars Millennium Project (after seeing a commercial for it during Star Trek: Voyager), where kids were asked to design a colony on Mars in the year 2030. I completely immersed myself in that project, learning everything I could about Mars, and I knew for certain at that point that I wanted a career in planetary science.

2. What drew you to MSSS?

I had been familiar with MSSS from the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) days when I was in junior high. Mike Malin and Ken Edgett were almost like celebrities in my young mind because I saw their names and faces popping up all over the place with all of the discoveries being made with the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) aboard MGS. I’d always known that the professor path was never for me, as I love the hands-on technical side of things, and so when I finished my master’s degree I had the internal struggle of whether to continue on to a Ph.D. or go into the working world. MSSS just so happened to be hiring right at the time I graduated, and so even though I had been accepted to two Ph.D. programs, I turned down those offers to come to MSSS. I don’t regret that decision at all. Working at MSSS has been such an amazing experience. 
MSSS is a very unique place in that we both build and operate cameras for NASA missions, and we also do science. My primary duty is to target the Context Camera (CTX) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which means I get to pick what the camera takes pictures of in a given week, and then I analyze those pictures from the standpoint of a geologist. It’s a fantastic opportunity. There aren’t many people in the world who get paid to take pictures of Mars every day! It’s also unique in that I get to look at the entire planet every day, whereas in a pure research position people often focus on a single location or a single type of landform (i.e. volcanoes). I’ve looked at every image taken by CTX, covering about 63% of Mars at 6 m/pixel, so that gives you a whole new perspective on Mars that you wouldn’t necessarily get elsewhere.  

3. What’s the weather on Mars this week?  What can we learn from studying it over time?

Right now it’s approaching the end of northern summer/southern winter on Mars, which is a pretty active time when it comes to the weather. There’s a lot of dust storm activity along the seasonal south polar cap edge as the temperature decreases and frost is deposited on the surface. For the past few weeks there have been a lot of water ice clouds over the equatorial regions due to the sublimation of the seasonal northern polar cap in summer, but these clouds are decreasing as the water is being redistributed to the seasonal south polar cap.
Thanks to the combined efforts of the MOC wide-angle on MGS and now the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) aboard MRO, we’ve been monitoring martian weather on a daily basis here at MSSS via daily global mosaics of the planet for the past 6+ Mars years (mid-March 1999 through today). From this effort, we’ve learned that the weather on Mars is pretty repetitive each year, so we can predict with relatively good accuracy at this point what the weather will be like down to the period of a week or two. This information is very important in the future landing site selection process—you don’t want to land somewhere prone to massive dust storms every year. It’s also useful for orbital missions like MRO, so that we can plan around the weather when choosing what places to take images of on the surface (sometimes CTX images of dust activity can look really amazing, but most of the time the dust just gets in the way and makes the image quality very poor).

4. Tell us about your education and public outreach work.

Before coming to MSSS, I did a lot of public outreach work with The Mars Society and National Space Society in my hometown of Seattle. At MSSS, I’ve participated in the Expanding Your Horizons program, which holds summer workshops for girls in junior high and high school to encourage them to look at careers in the sciences. We’ve also done job shadowing with high school girls from the Girl Scouts. Over half of the science operations staff at MSSS are women, including both the CTX targeting lead and our operations lead, which is a really good environment for young girls to see since it breaks the male-dominated stereotype. However, with the current state of science education in the U.S., I think it’s important to reach out to all students, and not just women. I like to point out to kids though that there are a lot of other space-related career options, some that are not what would normally come to mind (i.e. computer science, medical science, food science) and some that are not science-based (i.e. artists, pilots, technical writers, administrative positions), to demonstrate that there are a number of options available to them if they are interested in space.   

5. What would you like to share with undergraduate or graduate students on the site?

If you’re an undergrad, don’t just select the places you apply to graduate school based on the name or prestige. Think about what specific area of planetary science interests you, and then look for papers on that topic to see who’s working on it. Check the websites of those people and get in touch with them ahead of time if you think you’d be interested in working with them. Since you’re going to dedicate a few years to working with that person, it’s good to get a feel for them ahead of time to see if they are indeed someone you’d want to work with.
Plus, it’s helpful if they already know who you are when your application comes across their desk. Every Master’s and Ph.D. program I was accepted into were at universities where I had been in touch with the professors I wanted to work with for quite some time before actually applying. 
Don’t be afraid to get in contact with professors, students, or even working professionals in the field that you’re interested in. It’s never too early to make those connections that might come in handy later on as far as applying to graduate school, applying for jobs, or looking for people to collaborate with on research projects. Being proactive also shows initiative and helps you stand out from the crowd. 
Thank you, Tanya!
Tanya Harrison 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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