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Way Cool Student Scientists

West Valley High School – Cottonwood, CA

Some people look at Mars and see a desolate planet of rocks and red dust. For one teacher and two students from Cottonwood, California, Mars has become a very exciting and beautiful place.

Brian, Cherise and Tim 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.

Brian Grigsby is the Coordinator of the Science Programs for Shasta County Office of Education. He has lived in Redding, California nearly all of his life and says “I find it a joy to work in the community with the people that helped give me the spark for science in the first place.” He is now serving as a contact between Mars Rover mentor scientist Nathalie Cabrol and students Cherise and Tim.

Cherise has always been interested in science. As a freshman, she was one of a select group of students to be chosen for a junior level biology class. She has also studied chemistry and is involved in leadership and scholarship programs at West Valley High. She plays the piano and enjoys drawing, painting, and tutoring younger students. She would like to pursue a career with NASA. She says, “Because of this program (ASIP) I have become positive that this is what I want to do when I am older.”

Tim is interested in biology, chemistry, and physics. He is a member of West Valley’s varsity soccer team, and likes to snowboard and juggle. His goal – to become an astronaut.

Both students are helping Cabrol examine the images sent from Mars by the Spirit rover to determine where the rover should travel and what it should investigate. In mid-February, 2004 they will travel to the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA to get some first-hand experience doing science on another world.

On a recent field trip to JPL to participate in an Operations Readiness Test with the Mars Rover team, the West Valley ASIP team spent some time with Cabrol on a late night shift. They learned that many scientists were very willing to share information. Tim remarks “The field trip to JPL was incredible. I learned a lot about Mars and how it is explored. The scientists were very helpful and wanted to include us in everything.” Cherise adds, “It is very exciting to be there first hand while my questions are being answered…I can’t believe that I am actually getting the chance to do what I am doing.”

Cabrol is a planetary geologist who specializes in the study of Mars and its landforms for evidence of ancient shorelines and terraces. She recently returned from the Licancabur volcano in Bolivia where she studied the affects of extreme conditions on living organisms. Brian was lucky enough to join the expedition during its first year in 2002. He says “That experience forever changed my life. To experience science in the field and to climb to the top of 20,000 foot volcano is exhilarating.” And now he is part of a NASA mission to Mars. Brian says “Mars is an unbelievably beautiful place. With the largest volcano in the Solar System, to the deepest canyons, Mars has a wealth of beautiful places to visit…One of my biggest dreams was to be involved in this type of NASA study.”

Both Cherise and Tim share their teacher’s excitement about the mission and about Mars. “I really can’t believe that I will be there when the rovers are on Mars, and that I get to help the scientists. It’s really amazing” says Cherise. For Tim the excitement stems from working on a NASA mission with real scientists and real data. Both students feel their experience in the Athena Student Interns Program will have a lasting effect. Since the field trip to JPL, Cherise has been communicating with a scientist via email. She says “I feel with his help, I could really learn how to get a job with NASA.” Tim enjoys seeing the inner workings of the space agency. He says, “I think this experience will help me as I go further in my scientific career.”

Cherise has a message for other students: “Redding is a very little area compared to San Francisco and L.A. and I want kids to see that just because you come from a rural area, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do big things. And I think that our team is a good example of that and I hope that other kids understand this and go for their dreams just like I am doing.”