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Kirsten Siebach
Picture of Kirsten Siebach
Kirsten Siebach
Planetary Geology Graduate Student and Mars Science Laboratory Science Team Member, Caltech
"My favorite moments are when I get to share our discoveries on Mars with students and the public."

Where are you from?
I am from Oakton, Va., but I am currently living in Pasadena, Calif.

"Working on MSL goes hand in hand with my
graduate work because it gives me access
to new observations and data from Mars."
Kirsten Siebach

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
From a young age, I loved puzzles and I was fascinated by the idea of exploration. I thought that I would love to work on exploring the deep ocean or outer space. At the same time I couldn't quite make a personal connection with space -- it was so incomprehensibly vast. However, when I first saw pictures from the rovers and landers on Mars, I saw something familiar and yet different: an Earth-like land with river channels, but without current liquid water or vegetation; a red desert no one had explored -- a place full of unsolved puzzles. From that point on I knew that I wanted to explore the planet Mars.

How did you end up working in the space program?
I started working on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) data as part of an undergraduate research job while a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). I focused on learning to understand the geologic context for observations made by the Spirit rover near "Home Plate."

The summer after my freshman year, I had the opportunity to work on mission science and operations for the Phoenix Mission (starting just before the mission landed on Mars). It was so exciting to stand in the science operations center in Tucson, Ariz., and hear that the Phoenix lander had landed on the surface of Mars after having traveled 681 million kilometers (423 million miles). When we received and saw the very first images it sent back to Earth, I knew we were seeing things on the Martian surface that no human had ever seen before. I was captivated, humbled and thrilled by the idea that I could actually play a role in exploring the surface of another planet.

After Phoenix landed, I helped with mission operations, specifically working on organizing the "strategic," or long-term planning so that we'd be able to accomplish all of our science goals during the short five month mission. During and after the mission, I also worked on data analysis, focusing on the properties of the soil that we trenched during the mission. When the Phoenix mission wound down, I worked on operations for the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit by keeping track of the science observations we planned each day and helping decide how to do a campaign to study and understand the properties of the soil Spirit was stuck in on Mars. It was really interesting to study the soil on different parts of Mars and then compare it with the places on Earth that I studied in my classes and on field trips.

Nowadays, I am thrilled to be working with Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity in yet another location on Mars: Gale Crater. I have been helping operate Curiosity, selecting targets for pictures and laser shots (chemistry analysis), and keeping track of science observations. After studying interesting features near the landing site from orbital images (like studying a vacation site on Google Earth), it is so exciting to have the rover there and see the terrain from the ground! I am looking forward to using the data collected by Curiosity to understand the history of water flow in this crater on Mars and to help answer questions about the ancient climate of one of our closest neighbors in space.

What is a Planetary Geology Graduate Student and Mars Science Laboratory Science Team Member?
As a graduate student, I research the history of water on Mars using geological techniques that have been developed here on Earth. I use both rover and orbiter based images and chemical analyses to understand the surface of Mars. I then go out and do fieldwork at locations on Earth that are similar to Mars in order to better understand both planets and how the rocks inform us about the planetary and local history.

As a science team member, I get to help with mission operations, or in other words: plan the Curiosity rover's daily activities. I help to document the science activities and compile the science activity plans. I then work with the rest of the science team to analyze the data as it is returned from the rover. We use this data to decide where the rover will go next and what data the rover will collect too.

Working on MSL goes hand in hand with my graduate work because it gives me access to new observations and data from Mars.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
My favorite moments are when I get to share our discoveries on Mars with students and the public. I love the way that exploration inspires people and opens their minds to see Earth and the solar system in new ways. What really makes my day is when people come back and tell me how their perspective has been changed by the information and images returned from the rovers, or how they have been inspired by the accomplishments of the science and engineering teams. This, in turn, encourages me to learn and explore more.

Who inspired you?
I have been fortunate to have a series of enthusiastic and inspiring teachers and mentors in science programs spanning from high school to graduate school, including Barbara Wood, Ashley Jones, Jim Jarvis, Ray Arvidson, John Grotzinger, and Bethany Ehlmann, among others. My interest in science was in part inspired by their passion and then sustained through their patience, time and support.

I am also constantly amazed by the engineers who build spacecraft and land them safely on the surface of another planet -- my own work is inspired by a desire to take advantage of the opportunity provided me by those impressive engineering accomplishments.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
This advice applies whether you are interested in planetary geology or any other field: Find something you're interested in, search for opportunities to do work in that field and then take advantage of those opportunities!

A little bit of work experience can go a long way in finding out what you are interested in. Working will help you find out what it is you still need to learn in order to be successful too. It is better to learn this earlier than later, especially since classes are much more engaging when you see how they will help you in your career. Besides this, work experience allows you to make connections and build relationships with people in the field, which will open up even more opportunities for you.

What do you do for fun?
I enjoy traveling (especially road trips), camping and photography. Closer to home, I like going on long walks, swimming, and swing and salsa dancing.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
First, don't give up! It wouldn't be "research" if we knew what we were doing --everyone makes mistakes and it takes a lot of patience, hard work and a little bit of luck to make new discoveries. Don't let that stop you -- it's worth it.

Second, don't forget writing! Communication and presentation skills are critical for a successful career in any field.

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Last Updated: 1 May 2014

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