Meet: Joel S. Levine
Atmospheric and Planetary Scientist
Langley Research Center
Who I am and what I do:
I am an atmospheric and planetary scientist studying the Earth, Mars,
and the other planets.
My research deals with the origin and evolution of
the atmospheres of Earth and Mars, the chemistry of their atmospheres,
the ways that life has changed Earth's atmosphere, and the potential
impact of life on the composition and chemistry of Mars’ atmosphere
and on global climate change.
I have developed mathematical models to study the
atmospheres of Earth and Mars and have investigated the chemical composition
of Mars’ atmosphere
using the Copernicus Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. I have also investigated
the ways that biological processes and fire have affected the chemical
composition of the Earth's atmosphere by using aircraft that take scientific
measurements as they fly over our planet’s diverse ecosystems.
I am now investigating the chemical composition of Mars’ atmosphere
and searching for life on Mars using robotic airplanes. Robotic airplanes
are a very powerful way to study the atmosphere and surface of planets.
Areas of expertise:
- The origin and evolution of the atmospheres of Earth and Mars
- Atmospheric photochemistry
- The impact of life on the chemical composition of atmospheres
- The search for life outside the Earth
- The use of robotic airplanes to explore Mars
How I first became interested in this
As a sixth grade student in Brooklyn, New York, I still remember
seeing (as a full color inset in my science textbook) the very first
photographs of Mars and the other planets obtained with the new 200-inch
telescope at Mount Palomar in California. At that time it was the largest
telescope in the world. Mars and the other planets circling the Sun photographed
by the telescope are distant worlds just like the Earth. Our galaxy,
the Milky Way galaxy, is filled with billions of Suns, and the universe
is filled with billions of galaxies. At that point, I decided that I
wanted to study Mars and to search for life in the Solar System as my
What helped me prepare for this job
In high school, I took all of the science and math courses that
I could. Growing up in New York City provided many opportunities
to pursue science. As a junior and senior high school student, on Saturdays
I took courses in science at the Hayden Planetarium, the American Museum
of Natural History, and at the Brooklyn Children's Museum. I also
joined the Junior Astronomy Club, then located at the Hayden Planetarium.
The Junior Astronomy Club provided many opportunities to pursue a career
in science by providing telescope-making courses and weekly opportunities
to observe the night sky at observation sites on the outskirts of New
York City. Many former members of the Junior Astronomy Club are today
distinguished scientists studying the planets, stars and galaxies.
My role models or inspirations
In both junior and senior high school, I was fortunate to have enthusiastic
and very supportive science teachers.
My education and training
I received a B.S. in physics from Brooklyn College of
the City University of New York, a M.S. in meteorology from New York
University and a M.S. in aeronomy and planetary atmospheres and a Ph.D.
in atmospheric science, both from the University of Michigan. As a
graduate student, I worked at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space
Studies in New York City.
After working at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies as a graduate
student, I joined the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
I have been at NASA Langley ever since. I also serve as an Adjunct
Professor of both Applied Science and Physics at the College of William
and William in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I teach courses in atmospheric
science, atmospheric chemistry, planetary atmospheres, and climate
What I like best about my job
The study of the Earth and Mars and the search for life on Mars is very
exciting and relevant.
What I like least about my job
a lead research scientist at a NASA research center, I am required
to complete a great deal of paperwork. The paperwork involves workforce,
budget, schedules, etc. This paperwork significantly cuts into my research
My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
If you would like a career studying the Earth,
Mars, and the other planets, be sure to get a strong foundation in
physics, chemistry, geology, biology, calculus, differential equations,
and computer programming.
In 1998, because of my experience measuring gases
in the Earth's atmosphere, I was asked by the National Archives
and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, to measure
the composition of the atmosphere trapped in the sealed picture
frames that hold the Declaration of Independence, the U. S. Constitution,
and the Bill of Rights, collectively called the "Charters of Freedom." From
1998 to 2003, I led a research team that identified the chemical
composition and water vapor content of the atmosphere in the sealed
picture frames that hold the Charters of Freedom using a method
that did not harm the very fragile sheepskin documents in any way.
I have also used these techniques to study the chemical composition
of Earth's atmosphere. Our Charters of Freedom measurements indicated
that the sealed picture frames contained much more water vapor
than previously thought. Too much water vapor could destroy the
sheepskin documents. In 2003, the Charters of Freedom were removed
from their sealed picture frames and re-sealed in new ones containing
less water vapor. They are now back on display at the National
Every time I visit the National Archives, I think of how technology
developed by NASA to study the chemical composition of the Earth's
atmosphere was used to preserve the Charters of Freedom, protecting
these very important and historic documents that form the cornerstone
of our country.