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Meet: Mary Urquhart

Fifth Year Grad Student & Research Assistant


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My outreach activities

Who I Am

My name is Mary Urquhart (Kelly is my married name, but I don't use that name at work). I'm a fifth-year graduate student in the Astrophysical, Planetary, and Atmospheric Sciences department at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I already have my M.S. degree and all I have left for my Ph.D. is my doctoral thesis. My job title is research assistant. Basically, I get paid to do research in planetary science under the guidance of a professor (my advisor). Most of the research I do involves computer modeling.

So what exactly is computer modeling? Well, first the scientist needs to understand the processes involved in the problem he or she is trying to solve: the physics, the chemistry and sometimes even the biology related to the problem. Next, the researcher decides what the important processes are. Nature is far too complicated for anyone to model all of the processes involved with a particular system, even with the very best computers. The important processes are those that will make a significant impact on the result of the model. Next, the researcher uses math to describe the processes quantitatively, in a way that the computer can use. Then the scientist programs these equations into a computer using any one of many computer languages. Once all of these steps have been completed, the scientist has a model for how the system he or she wants to study works. The scientist can then experiment with the system in a way similar to the way he or she might experiment with a real system in a laboratory. Computer modeling is especially useful for doing science on things that are too big, too small, too far away, or take a long time to change and are therefore unsuited to laboratory work. I have just described nearly all of planetary science, atmospheric science and astrophysics!

My Research

In the past, I have used computer modeling to do research involving the atmosphere of Venus, the surface of the Moon, the possibility of an icy greenhouse on three of Jupiter's largest moons, and the formation of the Moon. Currently I am beginning my thesis research on the carbon dioxide cycle on Mars where water and volcanic heat have at some time come into contact (a hydrothermal system). The geysers of Yellowstone National Park are part of a hydrothermal system produced by ground water interacting with hot volcanic rock underneath the park. Although the surface of Mars is quite dry today, much evidence exists that water had flowed on the surface in the past. Mars is likely to have at least some water today locked in a frozen layer mixed with the crust. Also Mars may have or have had underground water similar to aquifers on the Earth. Mars, like the Earth also has volcanos. None of the Martian volcanos are known to be presently active, and may not have been for a very long time. Still, at one time in the past, water and volcanic heat have likely interacted to produce hydrothermal systems. My research focuses on the interaction between the hot water, rocks, gases in the atmosphere and gases released by molten rock.

Why I Do What I Do

Why I became a scientist is a very long story. One of the most important prerequisites for being a scientist is simple curiosity. I went into science because I wanted to understand everything I could about how the natural world works. Some scientists are more interested in technology (like my husband) and want to know how gadgets (things like computers, stereo speakers and other devices) work and how to make them. Another important quality is liking to solve problems. Most young children are naturally curious and many like to solve puzzles. I was certainly no exception. My parents are both chemists and were in graduate school when I was in elementary school. I learned at a very young age that curiosity is a good thing, and that science is a life-long process of learning.

The Early Years

I didn't know exactly what I wanted to be at first. In kindergarten I remember that I wanted to be a ballet dancer and work in a lab like my Dad. In third grade, at Hamilton Park Elementary in Dallas, TX, I wanted to be a biologist. When my parents were helping me make a butterfly collection, however, I cried when I found out that a butterfly I caught had died. My father explained the butterflies were supposed to die, which didn't make me feel any better. I decided then that if biology involved studying dead things, it wasn't for me.

Then in fourth grade, I started going to the planetarium every Wednesday after school. For the first time, I had a glimpse at the wonders of the universe. The planets, the stars, the nebulae and the galaxies all seemed so beautiful, almost magical to me. I wished I could reach out and touch them, and I wanted to understand them...to know why they are the way they are and how they are related to one another. It was like a door opened for me. I had never really realized just how much beauty and mystery existed in the universe. The world I saw everyday took on new meaning for me, too. I began to look through all of my parents' science books. I found I had a passion for geology, too. I wanted to know why rocks look the way they do: particularly minerals, with all of their different colors and crystal shapes.

After elementary school, I went to Richardson Junior High School. I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but I still wasn't exactly sure what type. School had been very hard for me up until that point. I have a learning disability and had trouble learning to read (I couldn't until second grade), and even by seventh grade, spelling and actually doing math were difficult for me. I could understand complex math fairly easily, but when doing something as simple as arithmetic I had trouble because my brain would mix up the numbers I saw. In time, school became much easier. When I did learn to read, I read everything I could. I particularly enjoyed reading science fiction and fantasy books, as well as science books. By seventh grade I was reading my parents college text books. With a lot of effort, I learned to compensate for many of the other problems associated with my learning disability. I also discovered new interests such as music and art, which made school more fun. By the time I was in high school I was in all honors classes and on the honor roll.

High School Years

I had decided by ninth grade that I definitely wanted to be a planetary scientist. When Voyagers 1 and 2 made their historic encounters with Jupiter and Saturn, I had cut out all of the photos and articles from the newspaper and saved them. Later, I went to used book stores and bought all of the "National Geographic" magazines and others that had articles about the planets. That year my grandparents bought me a telescope, I joined the Astronomy book club, and then bought my first observation handbooks. I also subscribed to "Astronomy" magazine. The next year I bought my first college-level planetary geology book with babysitting money I had saved up. That single book, "An Introduction to Planetary Geology" by Billy P. Glass, became my most prized possession. I still have it today, even though I know it by heart, and a lot of the material is seriously out of date.

I went to high school at Berkner High, once again in Richardson, TX. My course load was designed to prepare me for college majoring in anything from literature and history to math and science. I had four years each of math, science (not including a semester of psychology) and English, and three years of history. I only had time for one real elective and that was choir. As it turned out, I am very grateful that I did have as well-rounded an education as possible in high school. The college I chose to attend was an all-science school and very weak in the humanities. I learned to write effectively in high school, definitely not college. Mrs. Patton, my junior year English teacher, certainly deserves most of the credit.

Away to College

My college, New Mexico Tech in Socorro, NM was great. It's a small school that had about 800 undergraduate students and 400 graduate students. Although small and very inexpensive, the education in math and science was superb. The class sizes were small and professors taught even freshman-level classes (unusual at many larger schools). Also, despite its small size, I found a job as an assistant to a senior engineer at a testing facility on campus my freshman year. I also had the opportunity to work for a year at the Array Operations Center for the Very Large Array radio telescope, also on the campus of New Mexico Tech. During that time my love of astrophysics grew (due in no small part to Dr. Jean Eilek, my Advanced Astrophysics professor). I started to wonder if I wouldn't prefer to spend my life studying galaxy formation and evolution instead of planets.

Internships are the Way to Go

Between my fourth and fifth years as an undergraduate, I had an internship at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, CA through NASA's Planetary Geology and Geophysics Undergraduate Research Program. I was given the amazing opportunity to be one of the first people to see and work with the images from the Magellan spacecraft. In those images I saw a planet so much more alien to Earth than many people had suspected, that is until Magellan's radar pierced the thick clouds that veil the surface of Venus. The idea that a planet could be so similar in mass and size to Earth and yet be so different geologically from Earth was intriguing to me. I found my interest in planetary science reborn and with it a dilemma that would follow me to graduate school.

Grad School

After graduating from New Mexico Tech with two degrees, one in Geophysics, and the other in Physics with an Astrophysics option, I went immediately to graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). I chose CU for several reasons. The first reason was location. I had been seriously dating another student at New Mexico Tech named Sean Kelly (he's now my husband), and since I was a year ahead of him in school, we decided that I should only apply to schools in areas where he would have a good chance of getting a job. The second major reason was that CU is the only major institution I found that has astrophysics and planetary science in the same department. Since I was at a point in my career where I wasn't ready to chose between the two fields, CU seemed ideal. I was ecstatic when the news came in February of my final year in New Mexico that I was accepted with full funding. I was going to my first choice of schools!

In August 1992 I began my graduate career. I took a full course load of three graduate classes plus a seminar class the first semester. For the first three years of graduate school I took as many planetary and astrophysics classes as I could, in addition to basic applied physics and math methods. I found out that one of the most important things to my success would be learning how to effectively use the computer for computations, graphing data and model results. Prior to that point I used computers almost exclusively for writing papers and sending email. I also taught introductory astronomy labs for all but one of my first six semesters, plus once during the summer. I went from being terrified of public speaking to actually enjoying it. At the end of my third year I actually volunteered to teach the introductory astronomy course. I had to design my curriculum, homework, tests, and even choose the textbook. It was by far one of the most tiring and rewarding (actually, downright fun) experiences of my life. Suddenly, a career as a teacher seemed like a possibility.

The other great thing I was doing was attending, and eventually leading, field trips to all sorts of wonderful places that have features related to other planets. First was Meteor Crater in Arizona, next was Hawaii to study volcanos, then Yellowstone National Park to study hydrothermal systems (what I'm now doing research on was an idea born from that trip). In addition, I have led trips to Death Valley, the Mojave Desert and Rocky Mountain National Park. To me, these trips bring into clearer focus the similarities between our planet and its neighbors in a way that just looking at pictures or reading papers never will. If you can't actually go to Venus, Mars, or the Moon, why not do the next best thing?

Personal

My second year in graduate school my fiance came to Colorado and a year later we were married. Sean grew up in the suburbs of Denver, a mere 20-minute drive from Boulder, so for him it was coming home. He loves mountain biking and Boulder is ideal for that sport. Sean also loves his job as a computer scientist, developing programs that display weather data for forecasters. Together we enjoy hiking along the beautiful mountain trails. Now, my fifth year of graduate school, we live happily with our little black cat named Kassandra. I have even found the time to plant a small vegetable garden on the patio of our condo and join the University Singers here at CU. My husband and I plan to buy a house and have children after I graduate and find a job.

Why I Like What I'm Doing

Now that I am finished with my first four years in graduate school and have my masters degree, I don't have to take classes anymore. I still take one or two a semester, though, just because I enjoy learning. I plan on graduating with my Ph.D. in a little less than two years. The best part of my job is that I get paid to learn, and sometimes learn something that no one before me has ever known. Science isn't all in books, it's about discovering new things and looking at the world in new ways. For me, it's also sharing that experience with others.



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