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Mary Urquhart
Fifth Year Grad Student & Research Assistant

Who I Am

My name is Mary Urquhart (Kelly is my married name, but I don't use that name at work). I'm a fifth-year graduate student in the Astrophysical, Planetary, and Atmospheric Sciences department at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I already have my M.S. degree and all I have left for my Ph.D. is my doctoral thesis. My job title is research assistant. Basically, I get paid to do research in planetary science under the guidance of a professor (my advisor). Most of the research I do involves computer modeling.

So what exactly is computer modeling? Well, first the scientist needs to understand the processes involved in the problem he or she is trying to solve: the physics, the chemistry and sometimes even the biology related to the problem. Next, the researcher decides what the important processes are. Nature is far too complicated for anyone to model all of the processes involved with a particular system, even with the very best computers. The important processes are those that will make a significant impact on the result of the model. Next, the researcher uses math to describe the processes quantitatively, in a way that the computer can use. Then the scientist programs these equations into a computer using any one of many computer languages. Once all of these steps have been completed, the scientist has a model for how the system he or she wants to study works. The scientist can then experiment with the system in a way similar to the way he or she might experiment with a real system in a laboratory. Computer modeling is especially useful for doing science on things that are too big, too small, too far away, or take a long time to change and are therefore unsuited to laboratory work. I have just described nearly all of planetary science, atmospheric science and astrophysics!

My Research

In the past, I have used computer modeling to do research involving the atmosphere of Venus, the surface of the Moon, the possibility of an icy greenhouse on three of Jupiter's largest moons, and the formation of the Moon. Currently I am beginning my thesis research on the carbon dioxide cycle on Mars where water and volcanic heat have at some time come into contact (a hydrothermal system). The geysers of Yellowstone National Park are part of a hydrothermal system produced by ground water interacting with hot volcanic rock underneath the park. Although the surface of Mars is quite dry today, much evidence exists that water had flowed on the surface in the past. Mars is likely to have at least some water today locked in a frozen layer mixed with the crust. Also Mars may have or have had underground water similar to aquifers on the Earth. Mars, like the Earth also has volcanos. None of the Martian volcanos are known to be presently active, and may not have been for a very long time. Still, at one time in the past, water and volcanic heat have likely interacted to produce hydrothermal systems. My research focuses on the interaction between the hot water, rocks, gases in the atmosphere and gases released by molten rock.

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