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Sarah Noble
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Sarah Noble
Planetary Geologist
"I am a planetary geologist. I study how other planets and moons and asteroids and comets and whatever else is floating out there form and evolve over time."

This profile has been adapted in part from an original interview conducted by Susan Niebur, titled: "Sarah Noble and the Congressional Science Fellowship" for the "Women in Planetary Science" website. To see the full interview click here.

Where are you from?
I was born and raised in beautiful Big Lake, Minn., a small town just north of the Twin Cities.

"The best moments for me are those
times when you figure something out,
when that data you've been staring at
for weeks -- or months -- suddenly
makes sense. How awesome is that?"
Sarah Noble

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I have been obsessed with space ever since I was a kid, but the moment that really stands out for me is from when I was in graduate school.

I was walking home from the lab late one night after working with some lunar soil, and there were still a few grains sticking to my hands (the stuff is surprisingly hard to wash off). There was a full Moon that night and when I looked down at my hands I could see the grains sparkling as the moonlight reflected off of them. I kept looking up at the Moon and down at my hands, and up and down again, and I was just awestruck at the thought that those tiny grains actually came from the Moon, and that people had gone up there and brought some of it home so I could study it. Ever since that night when I look up at the Moon it looks different to me, not just something that hangs in the sky, but a real place made of real rocks and dirt.

How did you end up working in the space program?
I decided when I was 10 that I wanted to be an astronaut. When I got to college, the only major with "space" in it was aerospace engineering. So, I went for that. I spent about a year at the University of Minnesota as an engineering major, when I realized I was not an engineer. So, I started looking through the course catalog thinking, "What else can I be?" I ran into geology and it looked interesting. So, I switched majors without ever having taken a geology class.

Two years later, when I was a junior, one of my professors who knew I was a space buff pulled me aside and told me, "You know, Sarah, there's this whole field of geology called planetary geology where you get to study the geology of other planets." (My professor had been involved with lunar sample studies since the early days of Apollo and he arranged for our class to get to see some real lunar rocks, which instantly had me hooked.) After that, he kept feeding me information about internships and other opportunities, which is how I ended up with a summer internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) with Gary Lofgren.

Who inspired you?
Carle Pieters, who was my Ph.D. advisor. Pieters has been a great role model for me. She has been there and done that, and was doing it back when she was the only woman in the room. So, it was really comforting to me as a young graduate student to see that you can have that kind of career, be successful and be respected in the community.

As an advisor, she was -- I always say she would give you "almost" enough rope to hang yourself. She was very sort of hands off, but she was always there. If you asked her to help, she was right there to help you, and her door was always open -- she would drop whatever she was doing the moment you walked in and give you her full attention. She gave you the chance to be independent and figure things out on your own, and then had her little safety net in case you couldn't figure it out. So, it was sort of perfect. That was exactly what I needed in an advisor.

What is a Planetary Geologist?
A planetary geologist is someone who studies how other planets (and moons and Asteroids and Comets and whatever else is floating out there) form and evolve over time. We use what we have learned about how the Earth works to try to understand how other bodies work. Like other geologists, we may study volcanoes and rivers and glaciers and rocks and mountains, but also impacts and interactions with the solar wind and magma oceans and other processes that we don't see, or rarely see, here on the Earth. We often have to make do with much less data than terrestrial geologists -- we generally can't just go out to our field site and make measurements, or pick up rocks and bring them back to the lab -- we have to rely largely on remote data. I'm one of the lucky few because I study the Moon, and we do have samples -- at least from a couple of places. I study how soil forms on the Moon. By using the Apollo samples to understand that process, we can extrapolate to help us understand how soil might form on Mercury or an asteroid, places where similar processes should happen, but from where we don't have samples yet.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
The best moments for me are those times when you figure something out, when that data you've been staring at for weeks -- or months -- suddenly makes sense. I don't mean the kind of big science breakthroughs that win Nobel prizes or put you on the cover of Science or Nature (those don't happen very often). Science mostly happens in small increments. But when those small victories happen, I think about how I just figured something out that in the entire history of mankind no one else has ever figured out before. How awesome is that?

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
I have had a lot of great opportunities already in my career, and when I think back to how I became involved in many of those projects or got offered those positions, it was mostly because I knew people: from interacting at conferences or workshops, or from an internship or research collaboration. When an opportunity appeared, someone thought of me. So, network, network, network. The old adage about how "it's not what you know, it's who you know" can be applied to science as well as anywhere.

What do you do for fun?
In my free time I like to paint.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Find an internship. I started my NASA career as an intern. It is a great way to get some hands-on experience with research, and it's a great way to start building your professional network.


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Last Updated: 3 January 2013


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Last Updated: 3 Jan 2013