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Meet: Wendy Calvin

Research Scientist
U.S. Geological Survey, Flagstaff, Arizona


Who I Am

I am a research scientist with the U. S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. I am interested in knowing more about rocks and ices on all the planets in the solar system, but particularly the polar caps of Mars and the icy moons of Jupiter. I compare measurements made by instruments on robotic spacecraft with those made by a similar instrument in a laboratory. When I first started I did more "hands-on" tinkering in a lab, but now almost everything I do is on computers. I don't mind the transition because now I'm working more with really great pictures from space which always amaze me.

I am a co-investigator for the camera that will be on the Mars Orbiter mission in 1998 (MARCI), and loosely affiliated with the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) on Mars Global Surveyor. As a "friend of TES" I started out being a post-doc to one of the TES investigators, meaning they paid some of my salary. Now I pay my own salary through other research grants, but continue my support of TES as much as I can because it relates to other research I'm involved in.

One thing I like about this job is that as I walk around on our planet, I can think about how the things I see relate to what has happened or is happening on a planet like Mars. For example, when I lived in Boulder, Colorado, the creek would freeze over every year. But it wasn't smooth, it was rough and jumbled and chaotic with big blocks of ice and sometimes still some water underneath. I think about if that had happened on Mars, which is much colder than Earth, in the past, when we supposed there was more water there.

How I Got Here

I did not know that I was going to be a planetary scientist until halfway through graduate school. As a kid I was pretty good at math and science, but also liked to run around and play softball. I grew up in Colorado, first in Littleton (near Denver) then in Douglas County, which in the late '70s was still mostly ranch land. I had a great physics teacher in high school but also was very active in drama classes and school plays. When I got to college at the University of Denver, I didn't know whether I should major in physics or theater, but in the end I figured I'd get a better job as a physics major. I ended up with a minor in geology because I thought field trips were loads of fun. I still remember the first fossil I found: I was in sixth grade when we went on a class trip to a place that had lots of shale (clay that has been compressed into rock) and I came home with a shark tooth! I still have that tooth, and later found out the shark's name, tychodys, a creature that ate shells millions of years ago.

In addition to enjoying being outside whenever possible, I also really liked my physics lab classes. After I earned my Bachelor's degree I needed some time off so I went to work for Ball Aerospace. There I did lab tests on silicon chips (called CCDs) that take pictures from space, characterizing how well they measured light in different colors. After working for two years I was ready to go back to school and the Univ. of Colorado was right there in Boulder so I started taking physics classes. After a year I knew physics was not for me and switched to geophysics. Eventually, I started research in remote sensing, looking at other planets from far away. I've been doing that for 10 years, gradually refining my "specialty" and getting a Ph.D. in 1991. I had a research fellowship and spent a year in northern Germany, which was too rainy and flat. I jumped at the chance to come back to the western United States and have been in Flagstaff for four years.

The Rest of Life and Fun Stuff

When I'm not working I like to hike and backpack. Flagstaff is nice because it sits at 7000 feet in elevation and it snows so I can ski and snowboard. I just bought new downhill skis so I will probably do more of that then boarding this year. I also like cross-country skiing because it is quiet and kind of like walking in the woods, except it's winter. I read all kinds of books and listen to jazz, blues and rock. I didn't have a TV for many years, but now have an old one and watch only one show a week, "X-Files." (This from somebody who watched game shows, "Gilligan's Island" and "Star Trek" all through junior high and high school).

I'm not married but was once, many years ago. Currently I live with my boyfriend, his mutt dog Albert Einstein, and my wild orange cat Rhubarb who I took home from the field by where I work. I have a 22-year-old British sports car that lets me work with my hands and substitutes for "tinkering" in a lab at work. I also sew clothes and love cooking. The picture above still looks mostly like me; though I cut my hair short last summer. It's much easier to camp out and backpack for five days if you don't have to worry about your hair. I gave up wearing contacts for the same reason: glasses are just so much easier, and since I always seem busy they are less complicated too.


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