“I am an official team member of a mission to Mars—pretty much my dream job,” says Nina Lanza ’97.
This dream did not take place overnight, though. As a young girl, she marveled at the appearance of Halley’s Comet. “It changed my whole conception of my place in the universe,” she says, and she knew she wanted to be an astronomer.
Flash forward to November 2011. Nina watches in person as an Atlas V rocket launches containing the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity.
For the past five years as a doctoral research assistant, she helped to prepare one of the rover’s 10 instruments for this mission to Mars. When it lands in August 2012, the ChemCam Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument will analyze rocks at a distance by shooting a laser beam, exploding matter at the surface and then deciphering the composition of the rock, she explains.
“Both Earth and Mars are made of essentially the same materials,” she says. “By studying the evolution of Mars, we can better understand how the Earth came to be as it is today, and how it may change in the future.”
“It makes me giddy to think that I’ll be one of the first people to see new data from Mars next summer,” she adds. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the ChemCam project is based, she has a front row seat to the action.
Her path to this place has required great focus. She studied astronomy at Smith, obtained a master’s in earth and environmental sciences from Wesleyan and completed a Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico in December 2011.
For three years of her Ph.D. program, she worked at NASA on a fellowship, which included a yearly internship at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. “Not only was I able to work directly with some of the top people in my field, but being at JSC also allowed to become part of the Desert Research and Technology Studies human spaceflight exploration simulations,” she says. “Working there has given me both new research skills and some wonderful new friends and collaborators.”
While all of her experiences have built her knowledge over the years, she says, “I feel like Winsor was the place where I took the first step in my journey to become a professional planetary scientist,” crediting Denise Labieniec’s astronomy class for introducing her to the notion of this career.