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Meet: Jim Murphy

Meteorologist and Mars Research Scientist
NASA Ames Research Center
Mountain View, California

My Journals

What I Do

I am a research scientist with the San Jose State University Foundation. My office is at NASA Ames Research center, where I am a member of the Mars Atmospheric Modelling Group in the Space Sciences Division. My work consists of developing numerical computer models of the martian atmosphere, as well as analyzing data from past spacecraft missions to Mars and participating in upcoming missions to Mars. The computer models we utilize are very similar to the computer models used for forecasting weather here on Earth. We change the models to represent Mars by changing the atmospheric composition (carbon dioxide, the fizzy stuff in a can of soda pop), the surface elevations, removing oceans (Mars has no liquid water on its surface), as well as other less-exciting changes.

Our models are run under a variety of conditions to better understand weather on Mars (and thereby learn about the weather on Earth) as well as the climate of Mars, and how it may have changed over the life of the planet ( believed to be 4.5 billion years). When we make new discoveries, we write papers (usually 2-20 pages in length) which, after being reviewed by other scientists, get published in scientific journals. These journal are like monthly magazines that contain results from a variety of scientists studying a large number of weather or planet processes.By publishing results, scientists are able to let others see what they have learned, and the other scientists can then use this new information to help them in their studies. Thus, we scientists are all trying to help each other learn more about the subjects we study and hopefully better understand the world around all of us.

My Career Journey

I decided to become a scientist who studies the atmospheres of other planets while I was an undergraduate student in college. I have always had an interest in astronomy (looking through telescopes when I was young, going to planetariums). When I was in seventh grade I wanted to study weather, so I started reading all the weather books in my school and public library. (Prior to deciding on meteorology, I had wished to be a farmer and then a veterinarian, but when half of my class declared that they too wanted to be vets, I decided I wanted to do something a bit more unique). I always enjoyed science and math while in school, and this paid off in the long run, since meteorology requires a strong knowledge of math and physics (which I did not realize when I decided I wanted to be a meteorologist!).

My interest in meteorology probably stemmed from my moving with my family to New Orleans, Louisiana when I was 11 (1973). New Orleans gets many intense thunderstorms during the year (which I greatly enjoy experiencing!!), and is generally a warm, humid place, but can on occasion get very cold in the winter. (I remember one February morning when it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit, which for people who live in the northern U.S. is not anything too significant, but for New Orleans is absolutely frigid!!) It was the variety of weather that interested me and prompted me to learn about the causes of the different types of weather. I have always been amazed by the destructive power of weather, and I think it is neat that though all the people in the world live in different places and have many differences among the way they live, they all, on everyday of their lives, have some interaction with weather!

My Family and I

I am 34 years old (though I often don't think I am that old!).I have been married for nine years. I have three children: a seven-year-old daughter in second grade, a four-year old son, and a 7-month old son. We live near San Jose, California. I enjoy working on my research, playing with my kids, working on my house with my wife, and playing soccer, among other activities. I recently had knee surgery because I injured my knee playing soccer last spring. One advantage of doing the type of work I do is that while I was on crutches, I was still able to come to my office and work. My job does not require much carrying or walking, except carrying my books and lunch to and from my car, and periodically walking to the 'treat room' (as my daughter calls it) to get a soft drink or candy bar.

My family and I recently enjoyed watching the lunar eclipse which occurred. We gathered with our neighbors, drank hot chocolate, and watched the moon disappear (or at least darken) as it entered the Earth's shadow, and then brighten as it reemerged from the shadow. Being the children of a meteorologist/planetary scientist, my kids get subjected to being dragged out into the rainy or starry sky to view yet another 'neat' thing that I want them to see. Sometimes they think it is cool (watching the space shuttle fly overhead; seeing a thunderstorm, which is quite rare where we live) and sometimes it is 'boring' (comet Hyakutake, which they could not see well).

The Future

I hope that in the next few months I will be chosen as a scientist on the meteorology science team for the Mars Pathfinder lander, which NASA will launch toward Mars on December 2, 1996. It is scheduled to land on Mars July 4, 1997. In order to be considered as a member of the science team, I had to write a proposal stating what I would like to study with the weather data sent back by the spacecraft from the surface of Mars. I will find out in mid-December whether or not I have been selected (by NASA and other scientists) to be on the team.


One thing to keep in mind if you want to become a planetary scientist, or meteorologist, or really anything, is that you do not have to be brilliant. I certainly am not. I work hard and try to learn as much as I can about the subjects I work with, as well as other things that interest me but do not have a direct relationship to my work. By taking the time to learn about the subjects you like, and then applying what you have learned, you can accomplish a great deal. And, it can be very fun!

[Editorial note: Jim participated in the Mars Team Online "Weather Worlds" project by supplying Pathfinder atmospheric data.]


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