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Mary Urquhart
Fifth Year Grad Student & Research Assistant

Why I Do What I Do

Why I became a scientist is a very long story. One of the most important prerequisites for being a scientist is simple curiosity. I went into science because I wanted to understand everything I could about how the natural world works. Some scientists are more interested in technology (like my husband) and want to know how gadgets (things like computers, stereo speakers and other devices) work and how to make them. Another important quality is liking to solve problems. Most young children are naturally curious and many like to solve puzzles. I was certainly no exception. My parents are both chemists and were in graduate school when I was in elementary school. I learned at a very young age that curiosity is a good thing, and that science is a life-long process of learning.

The Early Years

I didn't know exactly what I wanted to be at first. In kindergarten I remember that I wanted to be a ballet dancer and work in a lab like my Dad. In third grade, at Hamilton Park Elementary in Dallas, TX, I wanted to be a biologist. When my parents were helping me make a butterfly collection, however, I cried when I found out that a butterfly I caught had died. My father explained the butterflies were supposed to die, which didn't make me feel any better. I decided then that if biology involved studying dead things, it wasn't for me.

Then in fourth grade, I started going to the planetarium every Wednesday after school. For the first time, I had a glimpse at the wonders of the universe. The planets, the stars, the nebulae and the galaxies all seemed so beautiful, almost magical to me. I wished I could reach out and touch them, and I wanted to understand know why they are the way they are and how they are related to one another. It was like a door opened for me. I had never really realized just how much beauty and mystery existed in the universe. The world I saw everyday took on new meaning for me, too. I began to look through all of my parents' science books. I found I had a passion for geology, too. I wanted to know why rocks look the way they do: particularly minerals, with all of their different colors and crystal shapes.

After elementary school, I went to Richardson Junior High School. I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but I still wasn't exactly sure what type. School had been very hard for me up until that point. I have a learning disability and had trouble learning to read (I couldn't until second grade), and even by seventh grade, spelling and actually doing math were difficult for me. I could understand complex math fairly easily, but when doing something as simple as arithmetic I had trouble because my brain would mix up the numbers I saw. In time, school became much easier. When I did learn to read, I read everything I could. I particularly enjoyed reading science fiction and fantasy books, as well as science books. By seventh grade I was reading my parents college text books. With a lot of effort, I learned to compensate for many of the other problems associated with my learning disability. I also discovered new interests such as music and art, which made school more fun. By the time I was in high school I was in all honors classes and on the honor roll.

High School Years

I had decided by ninth grade that I definitely wanted to be a planetary scientist. When Voyagers 1 and 2 made their historic encounters with Jupiter and Saturn, I had cut out all of the photos and articles from the newspaper and saved them. Later, I went to used book stores and bought all of the "National Geographic" magazines and others that had articles about the planets. That year my grandparents bought me a telescope, I joined the Astronomy book club, and then bought my first observation handbooks. I also subscribed to "Astronomy" magazine. The next year I bought my first college-level planetary geology book with babysitting money I had saved up. That single book, "An Introduction to Planetary Geology" by Billy P. Glass, became my most prized possession. I still have it today, even though I know it by heart, and a lot of the material is seriously out of date.

I went to high school at Berkner High, once again in Richardson, TX. My course load was designed to prepare me for college majoring in anything from literature and history to math and science. I had four years each of math, science (not including a semester of psychology) and English, and three years of history. I only had time for one real elective and that was choir. As it turned out, I am very grateful that I did have as well-rounded an education as possible in high school. The college I chose to attend was an all-science school and very weak in the humanities. I learned to write effectively in high school, definitely not college. Mrs. Patton, my junior year English teacher, certainly deserves most of the credit.

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