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Laser Focused: UNM alumna part of Mars rover research team

This rendering shows Mars rover Curiosity with the ChemCam instrument mounted on top. (Source: UNM )

UNM alumna Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, summarizes her job on her Twitter account, @marsninja, as “I shoot the lasers, pew pew.” Her career isn’t one young girls are traditionally encouraged to follow, but Lanza hopes that will change.

In a recent newspaper essay in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Lanza related an experience she had that demonstrated strides still need to be made until outdated stereotypes die.bright spot

“Three years ago, I was a keynote speaker at a conference, talking about my job at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a planetary scientist who shoots rocks on Mars with a laser. Part of my job involves helping to guide the Curiosity rover to the appropriate targets. After my talk, I was socializing with a small group of other conference attendees when one of them said, ‘Oh, so we’ve got a woman driver on Mars!’ The joke was made by a man and the others assembled – also men – laughed. I didn’t. I just stood there, speechless. I couldn’t believe that he had just made such a tired, outdated (and unfunny) joke…”

She continued, “… The fact is, despite the great strides women have made in the sciences, stereotypes persist. In the 1960s and ’70s, a social scientist asked 4,807 elementary school students to draw a scientist. Of those, only 0.6 percent depicted a woman. The good news is, today, about 28 percent of children draw female scientists, a significant improvement, but we still have a long way to go – especially when you consider that women earn roughly 34 percent of all doctoral degrees in science, technology, math and engineering.”

Lanza is a role model for any child, girl or boy, who might be interested in science. Besides being involved in the Mars rover project, she has hunted meteorites in Antarctica and told her adventures to Ira Flatow on Science Friday.

The team is currently working on a new instrument that will travel aboard the Mars 2020 rover, scheduled for launch in July, according to Lanza. Called SuperCam, it’s been dubbed the “Swiss Army Knife” of instruments, because it can do so many different tasks. It has a high-res camera, a microphone, a rock-vaporizing laser, and three spectrometers to examine Martian rocks and soil, looking for materials that could point to signs of past life on Mars. While ChemCam looks at the chemical composition of rocks, SuperCam will look at both the chemistry and the mineralogy, which will provide a lot more information to researchers and reveal more about the past and present surface of Mars.

After getting her undergraduate degree in astronomy from Smith College and a master’s in earth and environmental sciences from Wesleyan University, Lanza came to UNM in pursuit of her Ph.D. in earth and planetary sciences.

“At the time, UNM was (and still is) working in conjunction with Los Alamos National Laboratory on the ChemCam instrument, which would ride aboard the Mars Curiosity rover,” Lanza said.

The ChemCam Engineering Operations team was until recently comprised only of women, although a man recently joined the team.

“Still, it’s unusual to have a majority-women technical team, simply because engineering still tends to be a male-dominated field,” Lanza said. “What’s important to note is that nobody set out to create a team that was only women. We want the best people. It doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman – what matters is that they have the right set of skills and the right personality.”

The ChemCam – the name is short for “chemistry and camera” – instrument sits atop the Mars Curiosity rover and uses a laser to zap Martian rocks, Lanza explained. ChemCam’s spectrometers record the light created by this zap through a telescope. This information enables scientists to identify the chemical composition of the rocks.

UNM alumna part of Mars rover research team

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