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Mary Urquhart
Fifth Year Grad Student & Research Assistant

Away to College

My college, New Mexico Tech in Socorro, NM was great. It's a small school that had about 800 undergraduate students and 400 graduate students. Although small and very inexpensive, the education in math and science was superb. The class sizes were small and professors taught even freshman-level classes (unusual at many larger schools). Also, despite its small size, I found a job as an assistant to a senior engineer at a testing facility on campus my freshman year. I also had the opportunity to work for a year at the Array Operations Center for the Very Large Array radio telescope, also on the campus of New Mexico Tech. During that time my love of astrophysics grew (due in no small part to Dr. Jean Eilek, my Advanced Astrophysics professor). I started to wonder if I wouldn't prefer to spend my life studying galaxy formation and evolution instead of planets.

Internships are the Way to Go

Between my fourth and fifth years as an undergraduate, I had an internship at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, CA through NASA's Planetary Geology and Geophysics Undergraduate Research Program. I was given the amazing opportunity to be one of the first people to see and work with the images from the Magellan spacecraft. In those images I saw a planet so much more alien to Earth than many people had suspected, that is until Magellan's radar pierced the thick clouds that veil the surface of Venus. The idea that a planet could be so similar in mass and size to Earth and yet be so different geologically from Earth was intriguing to me. I found my interest in planetary science reborn and with it a dilemma that would follow me to graduate school.

Grad School

After graduating from New Mexico Tech with two degrees, one in Geophysics, and the other in Physics with an Astrophysics option, I went immediately to graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). I chose CU for several reasons. The first reason was location. I had been seriously dating another student at New Mexico Tech named Sean Kelly (he's now my husband), and since I was a year ahead of him in school, we decided that I should only apply to schools in areas where he would have a good chance of getting a job. The second major reason was that CU is the only major institution I found that has astrophysics and planetary science in the same department. Since I was at a point in my career where I wasn't ready to chose between the two fields, CU seemed ideal. I was ecstatic when the news came in February of my final year in New Mexico that I was accepted with full funding. I was going to my first choice of schools!

In August 1992 I began my graduate career. I took a full course load of three graduate classes plus a seminar class the first semester. For the first three years of graduate school I took as many planetary and astrophysics classes as I could, in addition to basic applied physics and math methods. I found out that one of the most important things to my success would be learning how to effectively use the computer for computations, graphing data and model results. Prior to that point I used computers almost exclusively for writing papers and sending email. I also taught introductory astronomy labs for all but one of my first six semesters, plus once during the summer. I went from being terrified of public speaking to actually enjoying it. At the end of my third year I actually volunteered to teach the introductory astronomy course. I had to design my curriculum, homework, tests, and even choose the textbook. It was by far one of the most tiring and rewarding (actually, downright fun) experiences of my life. Suddenly, a career as a teacher seemed like a possibility.

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