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Mission to Mars

by Erikah Haavie, Contributing Writer

As a scientist and researcher, Furman graduate Amy Williams knows about putting long days in on the job. But when the job is working with NASA on a mission in outer space, somehow time flies.

Her most recent project has placed her on Mars time, where each day is 24 hours and 40 minutes long. Williams, now working toward her doctorate degree in geology, is part of the 400-member science team working to solve mysteries on Mars with the six-wheel-drive Curiosity rover which has been traveling across the Martian terrain since August.

The mission: to find out whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.

From the NASA jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., scientists receive data, images, and other feedback from the Curiosity rover. In recent months, the rover has “tasted” sand and dust, analyzing the chemistry of soil samples it takes in from the Gale Crater on the Martian surface, and “sniffed” the atmosphere to search for the presence of methane gas.

Ten days out of each month, Williams has worked at the laboratory or tied in remotely, gathering data from the historic mission which will also support her research.

“It’s a really incredible experience . . . You wake up every morning and you’re on Mars,” she said. “The search for life… has always been a subject I’ve been interested in. It’s good to think outside the earth’s bubble and explore the universe, to better understand our place in the universe.”

Williams, a native of Summerville, S.C., was one of only 14 students in the country to be awarded a prestigious NASA Fellowship last year, which will fund the completion of her Ph.D. degree at the University of California at Davis. Prior to moving to California, she earned a master’s degree in earth and planetary sciences from the University of New Mexico in 2009 and her bachelor’s degree in earth and environmental science from Furman University in 2007.

“Amy was an excellent, inquisitive student, but her work ethic was tremendous when it came to research. She was tenacious, spending long hours in the lab . . . ” said Professor Brannon Andersen, chair of the Earth and Environmental Sciences department.

As an undergraduate student at Furman, Williams presented her research at a national meeting and two regional meetings of the Geological Society of America, and had an article published in the Journal of Hydrology.  Her research focused on the effect of water sample handling and processing on the measurement of alkalinity.  She showed that many of the methods used were technically not necessary.

Currently, students in the Earth and Environmental Science Department are engaged in research including traditional geology, environmental science, and sustainability science. Students are busy with projects ranging from analyzing the soil organic carbon content and environmental history of a local farm to analyzing the energy efficiency of geothermal systems in North Village.

“We believe that the collaborative research partnership between faculty and student is the ultimate form of engaged learning,” Andersen said. “Amy is the classic example of how the undergraduate research experience provides the right amount of mentoring to increase ability and self-confidence.”

“Furman gave me a taste of what research was like, as well as what graduate school and the real world would be like,” said Williams, adding that she hopes other Furman students will reach out for similar projects in “big science.”
“It’s a really achievable goal to get involved with a project like this,” she said of her work with NASA.

To learn more about earth and environmental sciences at Furman, visit http://www2.furman.edu/academics/EES/Pages/home.aspx

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