Tanya of Mars Gets Real About Rocks, Research, and Women in STEM
published during a waning gibbous moon.
02/13/2017

Dr. Tanya Harrison, also known on Twitter as “Tanya of Mars,” lists herself as a professional Martian, and she sort of is in a way. Tanya is a planetary scientist currently studying the changing geological features on the surface of Mars. She’s also working at Arizona State University’s NewSpace Initiative, a program designed to help budding commercial space companies learn how to explore the solar system. At ASU NewSpace, Tanya works with lead investigator Jim Bell, consulting on prospective space missions to the Moon and of course, Mars.

Tanya was also recently awarded her Ph.D. in Planetary Science but comes from an astronomy and physics background, a triple threat in the science world. Her research ranges from understanding gully formation on Mars to trying to understand the distribution of ice on the Martian surface. She’s also an expert at finding Earth and Mars analogs. She’s had her hands in several missions to Mars and hopes to get the chance someday to do science for the Mars 2020 rover.

Tanya took some time to speak to NOW.SPACE writer, Shannon Stirone, about how Star Trek helped her get into science, what it takes to become a planetary scientist, and how much fun is to study Mars every day.


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Tanya with Canada’s Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR) at the Canadian Space Agency Headquarters in Quebec. Credit: Tanya Harrison

SS: Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?

TH: I’ve always been really interested in science, space in particular. I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. It wasn’t until the Pathfinder mission landed on Mars and took an animated video of Sojourner driving onto the surface (I think I was in grade six or seven at the time) that I got interested in Mars specifically. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever.

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Movie showing Sojourner deploying the APXS instrument on sol 14. Credit: NASA/Mars Pathfinder Project

In 1999, during an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, there was a PSA that aired from Robert Picardo promoting a NASA project called the Mars Millennium Project, for kids to design a colony on Mars in the year 2030. I got obsessed with that project, even though I had no one else to work on it with me, and none of my friends were into it at school.

SS: Did you have any role models growing up or anyone that inspired you to get into a STEM field?

TH: Not until I had already expressed an interest in it. I saw on NASA’s website that they had partnered up with the Mars Society, so I reached out to my local Mars Society chapter.  I think was probably about 13 at the time. The people in that group were current or former Boeing engineers and/or Microsoft employees–like very techy kind of people. They all seemed enthusiastic to have this kid just kind of show up to their meetings and be like, “I love space! What can I do to be a scientist?!”

“I love space! What can I do to be a scientist?!”

I did some job-shadowing at aerospace companies in Seattle and they introduced me to scientists, engineers, and science fiction authors at local sci-fi conventions and things like that, so they helped me to become well-connected in the local community. The community was very encouraging of anything I wanted to do that was space-related and definitely the biggest direct influencers on my life. They helped me figure out that, yeah, this is what I want to do as a career, and I think I actually can do it, as opposed to just being like a pipe dream.

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A spiral dust storm along the edge of Mars’ northern polar cap, imaged by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

SS: What is your favorite thing about studying Mars?

TH: I think the fact that Mars is a dynamic place. People have this general idea that nothing is really happening anywhere else in the solar system, or at least that was the idea until the last few years or so. But anytime I talk to people about how Mars has weather, and the polar caps change across the seasons, and we get new impact craters and new landslides, and there’s stuff happening on the surface all the time, people get really excited and they’re like, “Oh, I never knew anything like that was happening,” because you don’t hear about it very much. They just assume it’s this dead planet we launch robots at every once in a while.

SS: What are some processes that make Mars an active planet?

TH: I think the biggest one is probably the weather. A lot of people seem surprised to learn that Mars has weather or an atmosphere.  Even with just a crappy telescope, you can look at Mars over the course of a few months from your backyard and actually watch the polar caps grow and shrink as frost gets deposited. If you were looking at the southern hemisphere in the dead of winter, you’d have frost as far north as 20 degrees south latitude in some places. That’s significant. But then in the summertime, the ice is way up at like 85 degrees or higher. So it’s a significant difference over the course of the seasons, and you can see that yourself if you just watch Mars through your telescope. That’s kind of cool.

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This is the first image of Mars ever targeted by Tanya Harrison for the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera (CTX). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Tanya Harrison

SS: You’ve worked on several science missions to Mars, can you tell me what you did for MSL and MRO?

TH: For MSL, I was on the Science Operations teams for all the color cameras–the Mast cams, the Mars Hand Lens Imager, and the Mars Descent Imager. For MRO, I was on the Science Operations team for the Context Camera and the Mars Color Imager. I picked what scenes the camera took pictures of and looked at those images to see if there was anything scientifically interesting to shoot again in order to get stereo coverage for making digital terrain models.

SS: Your specialty is geomorphology, can you tell me what a geomorphologist does?

TH: It’s basically a fancy way of saying I study shapes. I told my friend over the weekend I have a Ph.D. in shapes. It’s like a combination of art and science because you have to look at a lot of data and be able to have this encyclopedic knowledge of what different landforms mean.

 

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Dust storm over Buvinda Vallis, Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Tanya Harrison.

SS: What are your thoughts on the state of women in science, particularly those in astronomy and planetary science?

TH: When I got into science, especially having grown up watching Star Trek, I had this idealistic view of what it was going to be like. I thought that people who are involved with science were going to be very progressive thinking and enlightened and that we were all working together to benefit humanity and knowledge and all this stuff. I didn’t think things like gender inequality would be a thing in science, so I was disheartened to get into the field and realize it was still a very big problem.

There is a problem, and we need to do something about it.

Unfortunately, at my first real job (when I was no longer a student) I experienced blatant harassment and the experience was not good—both with the harassment and the whole reporting of it and everything. It was not handled very well, and it actually ended up driving me to leave my job because I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. It was also a very disheartening experience because I loved my job and I loved what I did, but I had reached a point where it wasn’t worth being treated the way I was being treated just to be able to do cool stuff on Mars every day. Luckily, that was probably the only really bad experience as far as that’s gone.

I’m very lucky right now to work for somebody who’s really great when it comes to that kind of thing, and my Ph.D. advisor was very much an advocate for women. He had a lot of women in his lab group, and he was actively encouraging women to get involved in the field, which was great. It was nice to go from a terrible environment to a couple of very supportive ones, but there’s a lot of work to be done out there. Especially on Twitter, when you see there are so many stories from so many women about being harassed in their different environments in the sciences, whether it’s in academia or in industry. It’s heartbreaking to see that it’s still so widespread, especially when you a have a lot of people that try to insist there’s not a problem and they just don’t want to accept it at all. No, there is a problem, and we need to do something about it.

SS: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to get into science but may not know where to begin?

TH: I usually tell people to be proactive if it’s something that they really want to do. This sounds stereotypical but if it’s something you really want to do you just have to work at it hard and do it, but beyond that, stuff isn’t just going to happen for you. If you’re interested in working on a specific thing like Mars, don’t be afraid to reach out to people by email or on Twitter. If you’re at the phase where you’re looking for places to go to school, don’t be afraid to ask people if they’re looking for students or if they know someone who might be.

Basically, every job I’ve gotten or job offer or opportunity that’s come my way has come from and reaching out to someone and saying, “I’m really enthusiastic about this thing that you’re working on, do you need some people?” The worst that can happen is that they don’t respond to you. Generally, people aren’t going to be horrible and bite your head off, especially in science. If you ask a scientist about their work, 90% of the time they’re going to be excited to talk to you about it. Enthusiasm is infectious.

I love it when I get emails from kids in junior high or high school or undergrads who ask, “How do I get involved?” It’s great to see that people are thinking about these kinds of things, especially when they’re really young. I’ve gotten emails from 10-year-olds who want to know what they can do to work in space, and I thought it was really cool. It shows initiative.

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The Milky Way as viewed from the Grandview Campground in Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California. Credit: Tanya Harrison

SS: What do you do for fun when you’re not studying Mars?

TH: I run a couple of photography-based businesses. I like taking pictures because I find it relaxing and I like exploring, especially in a city like San Francisco. You never know what you’re going to find or what you’re going to see, and you could walk down the same street ten times on ten different days, and you’ll see different things. I really like that.