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Way Cool Scientist!

Zoe Learner When she isn't doing homework, attending classes, and studying for exams, Zoe Learner is gearing up for the landing of the Mars Exploration Rovers. At age twenty-five, Zoe is a second-year graduate student at Cornell University, a member of the 2003 Athena Science Team, and the youngest Way Cool Scientist to date. Pretty cool, huh?

Zoe at Cornell overlooking Cayuga Lake

So I bet you're thinking, "wow— she must be a brainiac!" And, while you're absolutely right, Zoe insists that science and planetary exploration is for EVERYONE. "You don't have to be a particular 'type' of person, or possess a special kind of intelligence to work in this field," says Zoe. Her colleagues and fellow teammates vary in age, gender, and ethnicity. She works with engineers, accountants, geologists, meteorologists, electricians, computer programmers, software designers, secretaries, and even lawyers— the list goes on and on.

Mars hovers in the intersection of Zoe's education and her work with the science team. Her primary responsibilities as a student are to complete her graduate study classes, pass her qualifying exams, and create a thesis project— her thesis will converge on the data she receives from the rovers. She spends most of her 'non-school' time reading about Mars, attending training sessions to prepare for her role in the mission, and watching the Yankees or her University of Oklahoma Sooners football team (Zoe is a sports fanatic).

Once the rovers are set into motion, Zoe will have two jobs as an Athena Science Team member: she will be a Documentarian and a Science Theme Group (STG) member. As the Documentarian for the science team, she will act as a scribe to keep a kind of 'rover diary'. This 'diary' will maintain a coherent history of scientific investigation to keep the scientists up-to-date. As an STG member, she will examine the newly received data, and, based on this information, request new activities for the rovers.

Zoe during FIDO field test at Jet Propulsion Laboratory using 3D glasses to look at stereo images from the test rover

For Zoe, becoming a scientist is more like the manifestation of destiny than a conscious decision. She's been interested in planets, space travel, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life for as long as she can remember. She recalls the first time she considered science as a career. When she was in fifth grade, she visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to view live pictures of Neptune captured by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Several of the JPL scientists talked to Zoe's class about what they did, and it was only then that she dared to envision herself as a scientist. "It was like loving chocolate," Zoe says, "and being told that you could make a successful living as a chocolate taster!"

Zoe at the Kennedy Space Center with a picture of the Saturn V rocket in the background
Even before Zoe was in school, her favorite question was not why, but how? Her mother recalls a time when Zoe wanted to know how the electricity "got into the wall". They drove all the way to Hoover Dam, in Nevada, to satisfy her curiosity. As a child, Zoe's bookshelves were teeming with books on famous scientists, dinosaurs, inventors, and various disciplines of science, including astronomy and space travel. Zoe has always loved flying and roller coasters, and she still holds on to her childhood dream of being an astronaut.

Starting with her wild curiosity, and continuing with her interest in science, Zoe's excitement for Mars grew gradually throughout her teen years. As a young teen, she lived in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she spent a lot of time at the Lowell Observatory (for information on the Observatory and on Percival Lowell, who was passionately committed to the study of Mars, check out www.lowell.edu). Despite her admiration for Lowell's devotion to Mars, her interests weren't limited to one planet specifically. Her fascination with the Red Planet didn’t start until high school in the years leading up to the Pathfinder mission in 1996. She attended the Space Settlement Design Contest at JPL, and worked with other students to design a space station to orbit Mars. It wasn't until this event that she became a hardcore fan.

Zoe's mother is a teacher, and has been her inspiration and life-long mentor. As a kid, Zoe was only interested in science and math, but her mom taught her that being well spoken, well read, and having good writing skills were just as important as knowing the contents of Saturn's rings or understanding how stars shine. Being a good scientist is not just about making discoveries in the world around us— it's about sharing that knowledge with the rest of the world.

Zoe's advice to kids interested in science is this: don't think too much about what you should do to get to a specific final goal. Follow your interests because they will lead you somewhere— even though it may not be where you thought you'd end up. As a character on the TV show “The West Wing” (a physicist in fact) once said, "Great achievement has no road map."

This was taken after Zoe's first time skydiving.

Even now as a scientist and a graduate student, Zoe maintains a childlike excitement for her work. "The kid in me who was so excited to see those live images from Voyager can't wait to be among the first to see the images of Mars," says Zoe. From orbit, these landing sites appear to be unlike any of the previous landing sites of Viking and Pathfinder. "It's the thrill of seeing something that no one has ever seen before," says Zoe, "that lights a fire in my belly, and makes my heart beat twice as fast."