Final frontier has been PhD student’s first choice

Adela Talbot // Western news

Tanya Harrison, a planetary scientist and PhD candidate in Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Space Exploration, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, outlining why Earthlings continue to be fascinated by Mars.

Growing up watching Star Trek, Tanya Harrison wanted to be like Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott from the original series or Geordi La Forge from The Next Generation. And, in a roundabout way, she’s working on this intergalactic dream.

“I always liked the engineering characters; I liked the fact they could build things and keep track of how the ship worked and how it ran. But when I took engineering classes in undergrad, I didn’t do so well,” laughed Harrison, a planetary scientist and PhD candidate in Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Space Exploration (CPSX).

Following an undergraduate degree in astronomy and physics at the University of Washington in Seattle, Harrison went on to do a master’s degree in geology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. She had the opportunity to come to Western for her PhD immediately after and be supervised by Gordon Osinski – or ‘Dr. Oz’ – who teaches planetary geology and is the director of CPSX.

But a different opportunity knocked. Having found a post for a job at Malin Space Science Systems in California, Harrison applied. She made weekly calls to remind them she was interested. Essentially, she harassed them into giving her the position, she chuckled.

“I got a job offer doing the mission operations for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Context Camera. I thought about it, sent Oz an email, and said, ‘I think I’m going to take this job,’” she said, noting the opportunity was too good to pass up.

For four years, Harrison selected what the orbiter camera took pictures of and analyzed those images from a geologist’s point of view. She worked with the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, capturing daily images, constructing a global picture of Mars, its geology and atmospheric processes. Harrison also wrote weather reports and helped alert the Mars Spirit and Opportunity rover teams of impending storms that could threaten the rovers.

And then the PhD called her back and Harrison landed at Western. Today, in her fourth year, she is examining images of Mars, mapping out the locations of Martian gullies and crater fill material. Her research looks to determine the climate change Mars has experienced throughout its geological history.

“I study specific landforms on Mars that teach us about climate change in the relatively recent past. Mars is pretty dry right now, but there was a lot more ice on its surface in the past, and we can see where that ice used to be, with a bunch of different features specific to things like glaciers. I look for those, map them out and try to figure out what they’re telling us,” Harrison explained.

Her research landed her a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship last year, and she’s been sought out for Martian commentary since, most recently by The Globe and Mail. The paper contacted Harrison through Twitter, asking for an op-ed piece following September’s discovery of liquid water on Mars. The piece was also timed to the recent film, The Martian.

Mars has really been in the spotlight, she noted.

“Some of my work will tell us where we can find water today, which would be really important for when we send humans to Mars in the future, because we want them close to a water source because we can’t really bring it with us very easily,” Harrison said.

“It will teach us how the climate of Mars changes over time. The other big implication is, if you’re looking for a place where there’s water, then there’s big implications for life. If we’re going to look for it, it’s the best place to look.”

As for her end goal, Harrison hopes to become a principal investigator of an instrument or mission to Mars.

“I’ve never really been interested in academia. I’d like to go back to do the kind of work I was doing before. I’m really into the technical operations side of instruments, and collecting data from other planets, and processing that data, so I would like to work in the (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California, doing more mission operations, but with a PhD, hopefully at a higher level,” she said.