Published: Jan 23, 2014
Meet Kelly Fast, lifelong Star Trek fan and scientist on the MAVEN mission to investigate what happened to Mars’ atmosphere
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist? Was it watching Mr. Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise?
Pretty much! I loved watching Star Trek and another series called Space: 1999. That kind of exposure as a kid can have quite an impact! I also had a view of the Griffith Observatory outside my bedroom window. I don't think I actually thought about science as a career until I was closer to junior high age, but the passion for space was there early on, thanks to those influences.
What’s the most exciting part of your research? How did you get to work on Mars (if you excuse the pun)?
Like with so much of life, the path led somewhere that I hadn't planned specifically. I went down the astronomy route instead of planetary science at first, but ultimately I found myself working with a group at Goddard Space Flight Center that studies planetary atmospheres, and I did mostly outer planets work initially. Later, when I was exploring Ph.D. topics, someone said “What about Mars?” Wow, I really had no idea what was coming!
From a research perspective, it led to some fantastic and challenging science, but it also led to being involved in the MAVEN mission further down the road. Being involved in field campaigns at ground-based observatories and being involved in the MAVEN launch have been the most exciting aspects of the journey.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
A few years ago when I was lying awake in the middle of the night worrying about a Jupiter paper that I was writing, I got up and turned on the TV. The movie 2010 was on at the part where Jupiter completely collapsed...which made me feel better! But seriously, more often than not, it is getting away from the computer and sharing the science that keeps me going. When I get to share the science with a school group or with the public, it brings back the wonder and it reminds me about why I got excited about the science in the first place. Chocolate also helps!
What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been (and Mars doesn't count for this question!)?
OK, well, it's almost like Mars! I have done ground-based observations of the planets from facilities on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea is an extinct volcano close to 14,000 feet in altitude and it is one of the best astronomy sites in the world, but the landscape looks very much like Mars. Between the high altitude, the difficult access and working conditions, the amazing observatories and landscape, and the periodic incongruous snow-in-Hawaii, it can be a very strange place. Even stranger once was visiting one of the observatories, being recognized for a goofy video that I had made, and then being surrounded and photographed paparazzi-style on top of the world in the middle of nowhere!
What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?
Trying to make the case for why a science topic is important enough to be financially supported, and the activities that make up that whole process, can sometimes seem to take more time than the science itself. But, review and accountability are so very, very important, so that has to stay. Maybe I should do away with the chocolate. Ha, as if! Software bugs and crashes...yeah, let's do away with those.
Where do you see your research taking you? Will you stay on Mars or consider atmosphere elsewhere in the Solar System?
Though much of my own research and my involvement in the MAVEN mission have focused on Mars, I have actually studied planets throughout our Solar System. And, my experience managing funding programs has given me another perspective on Solar System research. I really do not know what to expect down the road, but it is certainly has been a privilege both to participate in and to support Solar System research.
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?
There's one of those funny photos floating around the internet with panels such as “What my grandparents think I do”, “What I really do”, etc. It's very much like that. My parents think that I run everything. My friends send their kids to me when they have science questions. My own kids react with a mixture of excitement and embarrassment. My husband just uses nickname combinations on me like Alien Spaceship Braino Planet.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?
I would encourage them to explore the possibilities with eyes open, knowing that the education, the work itself and finding the support can be tough, but the field needs good researchers and it's worth the effort. Flexibility is very important, as both science discoveries and the job market can make for a very dynamic situation. Even if someone chooses a non-science career, though, that does not mean that they should turn off the science awareness. Both as taxpayers and as human beings, we should all be interested and engaged in science.