Ever since my brief lesson on the solar system in the third grade, I have been interested in learning more about the planets. I was always fascinated with NASA and the space program, and eagerly sought ways to learn even more throughout elementary and middle school, whether it was going to the local science museum and planetarium for a visit, watching the movie “Space Camp” over and over, or setting up space shuttle cockpits for my friends to play in so we could reenact a shuttle mission from launch to landing! One of the greatest moments was using a small telescope to look at the moon one night from my backyard in Central New York. I could see craters and mountains on the moon, just with that small telescope that had been in our attic for years! It was then I realized the moon (and the other planets) were real places – places we could explore and visit – and I knew I definitely wanted to learn more.
After high school, I attended Colgate University and majored in Astrogeophysics, which allowed me to take all kinds of math and lots of science (Physics, Astronomy, Geology, Chemistry, etc.). Every summer during college I had a summer internship someplace different, which gave me the opportunity to explore different aspects of Astronomy and Planetary Science and learn what I liked to do best. I worked at Williams College studying interacting galaxies and the Space Science Telescope Institute studying very old galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope, and I spent a summer as a counselor at Space Camp before traveling to Australia where I studied stars. I participated in the NASA Academy program during my last summer after college, spending 10 weeks at NASA Ames Research Center in California working on a research project on Mars and Astrobiology. After that incredible summer I knew I wanted to work at NASA Ames and I wanted to study planetary science and Astrobiology. To achieve this goal, I went to graduate school and earned a doctorate degree in Planetary Science. I now am a research scientist at NASA Ames doing what I love every day, which is exploring our solar system and working on new space missions so we can learn more about this incredible Universe that we live in.
Many students often think space is “cool” and wonder how they might be able to work for NASA one day. My advice to students is learn as much as you can! By trying different things and having different experiences, you can figure out what you really like to do. Get involved in activities by joining clubs at school, organizing trips to places that interest you, or volunteering to work at different organizations. You can be proactive by creating and taking advantage of opportunities and exploring the many different options that are out there waiting to be discovered. Through such activities, you will meet and work with people who share similar interests with you as well. There is no substitute for hard work, however, and working hard in school is particularly important. Science and technology are changing so fast, so don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what you want to be when you grow up – that is why you go to school and explore to learn about the different neat things you can do. Keep learning and keep exploring – NASA will always need smart and creative people to keep exploring the final frontier – and one day that may be you!
Jennifer Heldmann’s fascination with our Solar System was sown in the third grade; nurtured through visiting “the local science museum and planetarium …, watching the movie ‘Space Camp’ …, [and] setting up space shuttle cockpits [in which to] reenact a shuttle mission from launch to landing”; and germinated when, “using a small telescope to look at the moon one night from [her] backyard in Central New York,” she realized the moon was a real place – a place “we could explore and visit.” It was from such sprouts that Dr. Heldmann’s mighty oak grew through studies that would take her to the NASA Ames Research Center as a Research Scientist. At Ames, Dr. Heldmann studies recent water on Mars through spacecraft data analysis, numerical modeling, and fieldwork in Mars-analog environments. As Dr. Heldmann explains, “Such studies are important scientifically in terms of Solar System evolution and also are relevant for planning future human exploration of the Moon through the identification of materials that can be used for in-situ resource utilization.” Dr. Heldmann, who received a bachelor’s degree in Astrogeophysics from Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y., a master’s degree in Space Studies at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, and a Ph.D. in Planetary Science from the University of Colorado, Boulder, has never forgotten how excited she felt when she was first introduced to the Solar System and later viewed the moon through a small telescope; so, when possible, she translates that personal excitement into education and public outreach programs that will inspire the next generation of scientists and explorers to “keep exploring the final frontier.”
View a video of Jennifer Heldmann.