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Meet: Joel S. Levine

photo of Joel 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 profession
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 career goal.

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.

Career Path
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 change.

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
 As 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 time.

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 Archives.

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.


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