Barbara Cohen: Planetary Scientist
Have you ever heard of Asteroid 6816 Barbcohen? Well, maybe not, but it was named after me! I can't think of an award I'd rather have. I received it for my study of lunar meteorites -- pieces of rock knocked off the moon that fall to earth. They come from lunar sites that no humans or robots have ever visited, so they contain unique new material for scientists like me to study.
I wasn't always interested in studying rocks, or in any scientific study. I loved writing, and literature, and music (I still do!). But two things happened -- one was that I saw a TV show about Voyager visiting the planets, and they were beautiful. Then I took a chemistry class in high school, and something really clicked with me. I started thinking that I could be a scientist and study the planets. I wasn't sure exactly how to approach learning about them until I took a geology class in college. Then I knew I'd found my niche. I thought, "This is it! This is how I can get to the planets. I can study the rocks!"
The teachers in my geology department were great. They let me work in their labs, where I learned new techniques and used cool instruments to open a rock up like a storybook. For example, each wavelength of light interacts with a rock in a certain way, telling some aspect of that rock's story. The elements in the rocks tell about what conditions were when the rock formed, and the age of the rock tells you when those conditions prevailed on the planet. It's amazing! Even if you don’t know exactly where a rock came from, you can get a picture of the history of the planet where it formed.
After earning my PhD, I began working as a research scientist. One of my best experiences was joining the team for the Mars Exploration Rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity. I was excited to come to Marshall because NASA offered me the chance to plan and operate robotic missions to the Moon and other planets to learn more about them. I've worked with LRO and with LCROSS -- the mission that confirmed water on the Moon -- and I got to see LCROSS launch! I’ve also helped with human mission planning for the Moon and other destinations where we will need human geologists.
I love working at Marshall because I get to discover something new every day. I might look at a meteorite in a way no one has been able to do before. Or I may get to see pictures of Mars fresh off one of the rovers. On other days you might find me working on a new robotic lunar lander project. I wake up each day thinking, "What am I going to learn today?"