Americus Times-Recorder, Americus, Georgia

On Campus

November 28, 2012

GSW graduate involved in ‘Curious’ Mars rover project

TUSCON, Ariz. — University of Arizona (UA) graduate student and 2011 graduate of Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW), Shaunna Morrison “landed” the opportunity of a lifetime when her advisor in the Geosciences Department at UA asked her to come on board as a research assistant and work with him on part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Mission.

The rover, Curiosity, is in the midst of an expedition surveying the Red Planet’s landscape, examining its rocks, minerals and atmosphere with the purpose of determining whether or not microbial life has ever existed on the planet.

Morrison explained, in a recent phone interview with the Times-Recorder, that Curiosity is about the size of an SUV and runs on nuclear power. It’s more than twice the size of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), Spirit and Opportunity.

Morrison was asked if she ever expected to be working with NASA scientists on the project a year into her geosciences graduate studies. Her reply: “Not in my wildest dreams.”

“I had no idea, none whatsoever,” she said. “I thought NASA was out of reach.”

When searching out graduate programs, she said she knew UA was a good option and her advisor, Dr. Bob Downs, told her of a project that she already had an interest in: Rare earth element mineralogy. Rare earth minerals are essential to new technologies and are used to make super-magnets, hybrid car batteries and iPhones.

“I was immediately sold,” said Morrison.

She also knew that the department received some funding from NASA and Downs was working on the CheMin team for the Curiosity Rover.

She explained that the CheMin (short for chemistry and mineralogy) team is in charge of one of the scientific instruments mounted on the rover. While working on the project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology, Downs called Morrison and asked if she would like to be involved.

“He said ‘we could use another person,’ I immediately jumped at the opportunity,” she said. “The next thing you know, I was at JPL.”

In essence, the Curiosity is “the next best thing to sending a geologist to Mars.” It performs a geologist’s work as they direct it from JPL. She creates and issues sequences of commands and makes sure the commands are correct for the CheMin instrument. The commands are issued through a command computer and the rover carries out its “choreographed” duties.

Morrison has worked on the project since June and says a difficult thing to get used to was the sols — the scientists would schedule their work around solar days on Mars. Sols are slightly longer than days on earth and often the project would require working in the middle of the night.

“The schedule can be strange and strenuous,” Morrison said.

Recently, the team reached the milestone of 90 sols and rewarded themselves by transitioning to earth-time and remote operations at their home institutions.

Morrison suspects that most people, including herself, are surprised to find out that many NASA scientists are geologists.

“Almost everyone is a geoscientist, aside from the engineers,” she said.

 “From my time at GSW, I knew geologists do everything, but that fact was really reinforced at JPL!” Morrison asserts.

She is enthusiastic about the possibility of continuing to work with NASA projects, if she is offered the option after finishing her graduate studies.

A strange and strenuous schedule, yes, but the trade off to work on the most advanced Mars rover mission to date is well worth it.

“We will further our understanding of Mars, and thus Earth, more than ever before,” Morrison explains.

She said the JPL command room is “the most electrified room you could ever be in,” and she’s happy to report that the team works together very well.

“They’re world-class scientists and engineers,” she said.

Aside from working at JPL, Morrison has found time to publish two papers, so far. She credits her undergraduate work at GSW and her professors for preparing for graduate school at the number one ranked geology grad schools in the country.

“The (GSW) geology department is exceptional,” she said. “I think the world of it. The professors are bright, passionate and one-of-a-kind. They love their jobs and are great at what they do.”

Morrison, a bright kid who was home-schooled in rural Taylor County, wasn’t always sure of what she wanted to do. She eventually found her way to the GSW geology department after earning an associate degree in business at Macon State College. She didn’t feel like the business degree prepared her much for business, but she put it to the test. Tired of working as an insurance claims adjuster, in January 2009, she and friend Mandy Dunmon went into business together, buying Papa’s Pizza To-Go in Montezuma. As the national economy went south, the two just kept working hard and managed to survive as Morrison worked toward her bachelor’s degree at GSW. She admits it’s the hardest thing she’s ever done, but she loved the restaurant and stands by their products.

“It’s the best pizza in the world,” Morrison says, and insists it’s not a shameless plug.

She’s been living in larger cities like Tucson and Los Angeles and says she still hasn’t found a better pie than at Papa’s.

Shaunna Morrison is pursuing a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) in geosciences: rare earth element mineralogy at the University of Arizona. She is a 2011 graduate of Georgia Southwestern State University where she was American Institute of Professional Geologist student of the year.


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