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PASSPORT TO KNOWLEDGE - To MARS with MER
P2K's M-Team: Not Your Average "Rock" Stars
The six scientists and engineers who were the "rock" stars of the Marsapalooza tour are living evidence that these days, the word "scientist" no longer brings to mind the word "geek."
The five-city tour - designed to raise awareness of the Mars Exploration Rovers mission - kicked off December 2nd in New York. Deborah Bass, Jim Rice, Zoe Learner, Kobie Boykins, Adam Steltzner and Shonte Wright -- P2K's M-Team - are seeing the fruits of their labor at work.
"I wake up every day and I get to go play, and I get paid for it," said Kobie Boykins, a mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
"It's fun," says Kobie. "You get to talk to people. You get to meet some of the most intelligent people on the planet."
In addition to being one of the most intelligent people on Earth, Kobie is also a hockey fan and a former forward for the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Beavers. So what does a jock with a flair for mechanical engineering have to do with Mars? Kobie was in charge of equipment deck integration for both of the Mars Exploration Rovers -- a big job for such a young scientist.
But all six members of the M-Team say they can't really call what they do "labor."
Kobie isn't the only hip scientist on the M-Team, however. Zoe Learner, a second-year graduate student at Cornell University and a member of the Mars Exploration Rover science team, was recently named NASA's Athena Web site's "Way Cool Scientist" of the week. (The Athena Web site is named after the Athena Payload, NASA's former term for the instruments used on the rovers.)
When she's not in school, being a scientist, or reading about Mars, Zoe can be found watching the New York Yankees or the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team.
How does Zoe feel about being a 25-year-old scientist?
"You don't have to be a particular 'type' of person to work in this field," she said. She went on to explain that science and planetary exploration are for everyone, not just "brainiacs".
Adam Steltzner, the lead mechanical engineer for the crucial entry, descent and landing events when the rovers reached Mars, agrees. On top of being an award-winning teaching fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Adam was also in a rock band. And he loves his job at NASA.
"It's certainly been the high point of my career. . . working on this essential phase of the mission," he said. "It's been an absolutely incredible experience, very gratifying."
It seems as if everyone on the M-Team loves to work for NASA: "My job is so cool. I don't know how to name just one or two things that I like," said Shonte Wright, a thermal systems engineer for the Mars Exploration Rovers mission.
"It just blows you away when you think about how closely you are involved with something that is just going to impress the world; it's going to change the way in which you view a lot of things."
"We want to dispel the myth that you have to be a geek, that you have to be a nerd, that you must have a short-sleeved shirt with a slide rule in your left pocket. There are people here at JPL who are extremely well-rounded," Shonte said. Shonte herself loves music -- "anything from U2 to big band" -- and plays basketball as many as 9 hours a week at the Caltech gym.
Sports are only one example of the wide variety of hobbies enjoyed by the M-Team. Deborah Bass, the rover project's deputy science team chief at JPL, enjoys scuba diving, cooking, and hiking with her husband and her dog, a German Shepherd named Halee. Even though Deborah has plenty in her personal life to keep herself amused, she still gets a great deal of entertainment out of her work.
"We say that we are 'fire fighters' in a way, because what we do is deal with the little brush fires that spring up each day," Deborah says. "It is very fast-paced and exciting work."
Jim Rice knew since childhood that he wanted to commit his life to exploring space. "Growing up I naturally built and launched countless model rockets, wrote letters to astronauts, looked through my telescope, and read as much as I could about space exploration," he said.
Jim's parents were supportive of his dreams and aspirations throughout his childhood, although his peers sometimes were not.
"Some fellow students . . . called me names like 'Moon Man' and stuff like that, but I was not going to let these things stop me from fulfilling my life long dream." And it's a good thing he did not, since he is currently working on the Thermal Emission Imaging System camera onboard Mars Odyssey at the Mars Space Flight Facility located at Arizona State University and is a member of the Mars Exploration Rover science team.
"I feel that I have one of the best jobs in the world," he says. "And it is an honor and [a] privilege going to work every day. Dreams do come true!"