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Way Cool Scientist! Emily Dean

Emily Dean was only a high school student when she became involved with the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. She participated in a program called LAPIS, an educational outreach partnership with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). During the LAPIS project, Emily worked alongside the JPL scientists and engineers to experience the many facets of developing, preparing and planning a space mission. She also flew to the Mojave Desert in California, to take part in rover simulation trials. And now, just five years later, she’s not only a legitimate MER team member, she’s also the latest “Way Cool Scientist.”

In 2002, she worked with a team of students from Cornell University to build a full-scale replica of a Mars Exploration Rover, which is now at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The folding solar-panel “deck” of the rover has a span of nearly 8 feet by more than 5 feet, and the height from the wheels to the top of the tallest instrument is nearly 5 feet. While constructing parts for the model, Emily learned about engineering, and developed an interest in machining. She also created posters, logos, a website, and T-shirts for this particular project.

Currently, Emily is the assistant to the principal investigator for MER. She usually works at Cornell University, but is temporarily stationed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Emily’s responsibilities in the mission have changed over time. When the rovers were being built and the instruments were being tested, she helped to calibrate the Pancams. Since the rover landings, her primary responsibility has been to maintain the staffing schedules for the team. She’s also compiling a glossary of the data that is received each sol (a Martian day), so that scientists will be able to find the data they’re looking for in an efficient manner. Emily learns a lot about Mars and the Earth during daily science meetings. Emily enjoys the spontaneity of the mission. “Each day there is an entirely new set of images to look at,” she says, “and each day the plan changes based on the latest data.”

Emily believes that studying geology and space brings us closer to understanding our own beginnings as creatures in the universe. Mars, in particular, has a lot to teach us about the origins of life on this planet. And, now that we have clues about the Red Planet’s wet past, Mars has become even more intriguing. “On our planet,” says Emily, “where there is water, there is life. So, the big question is: if we find water on another planet, will we also find life — or evidence of life?”

Emily has always been curious about how things are constructed, especially in relationship to the way the natural world operates. Her mother insists that one of the questions she’d ask at bedtime was, “Mommy, how does a transmission work?” Emily’s curiosity has served her well. She made the most out of an educational opportunity in high school, and ended up working for NASA — an achievement deeming her worthy of “Way Cool” status.