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Dr. Jennifer Stern Studies the Surface Chemistry of Mars
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Belly dancing, trapeze-flying geochemist Dr. Jennifer Stern studies whether the surface chemistry of Mars could support life.

Name: Dr. Jennifer Stern
Title: Geochemist
Formal Job Classification: Space Research Scientist
Organization She Works For: Code 699, Planetary Environments Laboratory, Solar Systems Explorations Division, Science Directorate

What is most interesting about your role here at Goddard?

I have no typical day. I work in a laboratory, an office, and sometimes in the field. In the field, we collect samples of rocks and soils from places with geology similar to that found on Mars and other planets. In the laboratory, we make geochemical measurements of these samples to understand how they were formed. The past two summers, I spent a month doing field work at Svalbard, an island above the Arctic Circle which belongs to Norway. We like to focus on extreme environments to determine the range of conditions at which life may be present because Mars has such an extreme environment.

I also use mass spectrometers to analyze extraterrestrial samples such as meteorites. Our team has found the same organic molecules that make up the basic building blocks of life in meteorites, which was a very exciting discovery.

The other part of what I do is to help develop and test customized instruments that will be used on Mars. Our group has an instrument on the next Mars Rover. It is called SAM, which stands for Sample Analysis at Mars, and will look for organic molecules on Mars.

Teamwork and collaboration are crucial. One of the most enjoyable parts about my work is being part of a team. Everybody is an expert on something different and so everyone contributes.

Photo of Jennifer Stern Photo of Jennifer Stern in her lab. Credit: NASA

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done as part of your job at Goddard?

There are two. Traveling to Svalbard to study Mars-like rocks was incredible. I got to go to a place very few people ever see. It was so pristine it was almost alien. The other cool thing is being part of SAM which is part of the Mars Science Laboratory. I will be here when the data comes back and be one of the first to see what we find. It is like being a remote explorer. Also, our team is full of incredible and inspiring people.

What makes Goddard a great place to work?

There are people doing so many different types of cutting-edge work. The opportunity to be involved in something as large in scale as sending an instrument to measure the surface chemistry of Mars is unique. My job is always challenging but always exciting.

Photo of Jennifer Stern› Larger image
Traveling to Svalbard to study Mars-like rocks.
Photo courtesy: J. Stern

Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies, interests, activities outside of work that people do not generally know?

Yes, I am a professional belly dancer. I have been dancing for 11 years and have performed in Baltimore, Alexandria, Washington, D.C., Orlando, and San Francisco. Like any dancing, belly dancing is a way to express the emotion of the music. I also just started taking trapeze lessons from the Trapeze School of New York, which has an extension in Washington, D.C. It really feels like flying and it is addictive because it is so exhilarating.

Is there someplace in the world that you want to visit or someplace you have been and want to go back?

One place I would like to go to is China to see the Karst Formations, which are the tall, narrow mountains that you often see depicted in Chinese scroll artwork. I am an artist and an art fan. Experiencing and painting different landscapes was what got me interested in geology when I was growing up.

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.