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Way Cool Student Scientists

Nardin Academy High School – Buffalo, NY


That sums up the feelings of the ASIP team from Nardin Academy in Buffalo, NY when they witnessed the landing of both Spirit and Opportunity from a ringside seat at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California.

Marilou, Kristen and Katie are members of the Athena Student Interns Program (ASIP) that is giving high school students from across the nation the chance to work with the scientists of the Mars Exploration Rover Project (MER). Their mentor is Steve Squyres from Cornell University, the Principal Science Investigator for MER.

“The experience of being with the Mars Exploration Rover science team on landing night left us with several recollections...Being in the midst of 150 scientists who have been working on this project for several years was awe-inspiring. There was sweat, tears, applause, and lots of smiles and twinkling eyes. Everyone was stunned,” says Marilou Bebak, a biology teacher at Nardin Academy. She continues, “The first thrill was witnessing entry, descent and landing of Spirit, and getting the signal from the rover that it landed safely. The second thrill was getting spectacular images from the surface of Mars just two hours later.”

Kristen is a senior at Nardin. While at JPL she studied the use of the Collaborative Information Portal (CIP), the master schedule program for the entire mission. She was responsible for keeping CIP updated as the mission progressed. She also created a three-page tutorial for the science team that explains how to upload schedules.

Katie is in her junior year at Nardin. Her work at JPL included assisting Steve Squyres with media relations by scheduling interviews and press conferences. This required many hours on the cell phone, as well as an extensive amount of time organizing the large number of media requests.

While at the landings, Marilou prepared outreach presentations for other schools and the general public to convey the excitement of their hands-on learning experience. She says “We have already done outreach presentations at Cornell University for a teacher workshop, at Buffalo State College for the Buffalo Astronomical Association, and at the Buffalo Museum of Science. We plan additional presentations at the Museum this spring as well as for our school.”

Marilou’s vocation is teaching biology, but astronomy is her avocation. She states, “Genetics is my favorite part of biology, especially recent discoveries surrounding the Human Genome Project. In 1994 I was accepted in the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers, where each summer I study topics in biology and where I wrote a lab about the West Nile Virus. As New York State Biology Mentor, I plan and conduct teacher workshops throughout the school year.”

Marilou has worked part-time as Astronomy Educator at the Buffalo Museum of Science for the past 20 years. Her favorite areas of astronomy are planetary and solar. She is also a member of the Buffalo Astronomical Association where she was the second woman in the club’s history to be inducted into the College of Fellows. In conjunction with the museum, she has participated in grant projects involving the International Space Station (Star Station One) and comets (CONTOUR Comet Challenge). She says, “The potential of a liquid water environment on Mars is fascinating. As a biology teacher who loves astronomy, the new field of astrobiology is very interesting. The potential for liquid water may lead to finding pre-organic compounds on other planets, which will provide a better understanding of how the first cells formed.”

Kristen would like to pursue a career with NASA, perhaps becoming an aerospace engineer. Her favorite subjects are chemistry, physics and mathematics. She has participated in numerous clubs including the National Honor Society, Science Team, Quiz Bowl, Math Club, Horseback Riding Club, and has volunteered at the Buffalo Museum of Science. She says the arts are also a part of her life: “I enjoy playing the flute and piccolo, and played in pit orchestra for our musicals ‘Godspell’ and ‘Once Upon a Mattress.’”

Katie is interested in pursuing a career as a writer. She mentions, “Although I have always enjoyed and appreciated science, I have decided that I will most likely pursue a career in the land of words. But I have made no final decisions. For the time being, I am content to live without restrictions on what my future will hold.” Her other interests include skiing, quiz bowl matches, concerts, and reading.

They all agree that witnessing the process of real science in action was a tremendous experience. Marilou says that as they watched science team members collect and analyze data from the martian surface, and sort through multiple working hypotheses, “we were truly watching history unfold before our eyes.”

“I know that everything I have witnessed has greatly enriched my perspective. I feel like I have had experiences from which I will never ‘recover’- which is a good thing,” says Katie. Kristen adds, “I know that this experience will be valuable to me in preparation for college. I am more confident in my ability to take on responsibilities.”