Most faculty don’t have the time to analyze their own data, so they take on grad students. If they’re like me, we assign our grad students tasks that we couldn’t do ourselves. We figure, well, if you’re good enough you’ll find two or three years away that you know how do this. Grad students are often challenged to take on tasks that might look impossible, or might require the development of additional resources, collaborations with computer program developers, things that we wouldn’t have time to do. Having grad students around is crucial, and that’s why the Department was formed.
But now there’s the idea that, well, we also have an obligation to the public at large, to educate non-scientists, to help do something to alleviate the literacy problem. The undergraduate education has become progressively more important. It’s why we specialize now in teaching general education. It’s a way of giving back to the public in these classrooms something—helping non-scientists not only appreciate science but use scientific thinking, critical thinking to help them develop academically for their own careers. A lot of students don’t get it, but this is what we’re trying to do, to use science as a vehicle to help non-majors become better students and to appreciate science and eventually become supporters of science.
The Planetary Sciences department has produced a lot of the current big names now, scattered all over. Most people look at LPL and Planetary Sciences as kind of a juggernaut. You go to a meeting now and you count all the people who came out of this Department, it’s quite amazing. And they’re all doing great work. Most of them are involved in flight projects in one way or another.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with all the different people here. They’re very supportive and helpful, and we learn from each other, which is very important. I’ve also especially enjoyed working with students. It has been very gratifying over the years to see them go on to important positions, important work, and it’s always fun to be at a conference or see a documentary on TV and say, “Hey, I know that person!” I think one testament to the nurturing atmosphere we have here at LPL and how wonderful it is, is that many LPL graduate students and staff return after going to other places.
Teaching greatly enhances your ability to do research, I think, because it makes you think about topics that are well outside of your research area, and therefore you get new ideas on how to combine what you are doing with other things people are doing.
My classes stay very current. When you’re teaching planetary science, the data come in almost as fast as you can tell the students about it, especially Mars and Saturn right now, so I’m always keeping up to date with what those missions are doing, what their big science results are, and passing that onto my students. It makes me a much better researcher, to be able to teach.
Plus, I always pick out the most motivated students and usually offer them a job in my lab, so I get undergraduates into the laboratory setting, and they get a lot of great work done. Dani Della-Giustina is doing an incredible study on using asteroids to protect humans on their way to Mars. She just won a nine thousand dollar NASA prize for that concept.
So I tap the undergraduate workforce as much as I can. They’re relatively cheap labor, and they’re really motivated, and they’re really bright kids. We’ve got some really smart people at this university, and I try to find them. I usually get one or two students to switch over to a science major from a NATS class every semester.
Picking out those bright undergraduate students and really turning them on to planetary science and seeing the light in their eyes when they get excited about a project is really a cool feeling.
We have a lot of visitors who think they might have a meteorite. I had one fellow waiting for me before I came in the door one morning, and he had 60 rocks. Sixty! I went through each and every one. But I used it as an educational experience and he was very appreciative, and after that session he knew what not to pick up.
I don’t normally get that many all in one bunch, but that has been something that’s a very pleasant part of my job, very gratifying. I’ve met so many wonderful people that way, and some of them do come back with real meteorites. It’s really a wonderful public service that I enjoy. People in Tucson are so excited about planetary science. It’s wonderful. They really appreciate all the things we do here. It’s fun to be able to share it with them.