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Way Cool Scientist!

Athena Team We're doing something a little different with this segment of the Way Cool Scientist. Not everyone who works on a planetary mission is a scientist or an engineer. There are many people who are part of the Mars mission who come from different backgrounds and have various talents that they put to use to support the Mars Exploration Rover team. Three of these people are Mary Mulvanerton, Diane Bollen, and Pamela Smith. They are part of the Athena team that helps principal investigator Steve Squyres get his work done. They may not be career scientists, but they all agree that their jobs are "Way Cool."

(From left to right) Diane Bollen, Mary Mulvanerton and Pam Smith in front of the Mars Rover exhibit at the Ithaca Sciencenter.

Mary Mulvanerton
Diane Bollen
Pamela Smith

Mary Mulvanerton

If you love space exploration but are not very good in math and science, all is not lost. There may be a place for you in the space industry. My name is Mary Mulvanerton and I am both an accountant and an attorney. I have the unbelievable honor of working on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.

Mary Mulvanerton and principal investigator Steve Squyres standing in front of the MER spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Lab.

I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and grew up in Old Bridge, New Jersey. As a child I loved looking at the night sky and wondering “who or what else is out there?” I watched every TV show and movie I could find about space exploration. I remember my excitement as I watched Neil Armstrong become the first human to walk on the moon. I dreamed of someday working on a project that would go to another planet.

As a high school student, although I loved math and science, it quickly became obvious, my talents lie elsewhere. If you put a dollar sign next to a number I can work miracles with it. If you put a letter next to a number, my brain just shuts down. Higher math was not my thing. Because I thought only scientists and engineers work on space missions, I gave up my dream of someday working on a team that would explore another world. I pursued my Bachelors of Accounting degree at Kean University in New Jersey and worked for many years as the Controller of a Wall Street advertising agency. In the evenings I went to law school and earned my J.D. in Law at New York Law School. I then worked for five years at a Manhattan Law firm, Calcagno and Garruto, doing commercial litigation and personal injury law.

Then, it happened. Along came the most exciting and important opportunity of my life. The Athena Science team at Cornell University had a position available for someone with my accounting background. When I was offered the job I dropped everything, gave up my job at the law firm, moved up to “the wilds” of upstate New York, and joined the Athena team. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

My job on the project is diverse, challenging, exciting and way cool. Every day is a new adventure. I create and monitor the budget for Cornell’s participation in the project as well as for several other universities and private companies subcontracted by Cornell to work on the MER project. I scheduled a museum tour for our student-built rover model which included the Smithsonian National Air and Space museum. I assist NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the facility that manages the MER project, with setting up flight operations computer accounts for our science team, badging issues and scheduling issues associated with training of the Athena Science Team. And, I even got to go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, don a lab coat, hairnet, and facemask and help calibrate the actual cameras that will be going to Mars. And lots, lots, more.

Mary Mulvanerton buttons up her lab coat as she prepares to enter a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Lab during Pancam camera calibration.

The most exciting part of my job is knowing that I am contributing to history. The accomplishments of the MER mission and what will be learned as these rovers travel to, and traverse the surface of Mars will be used to help future space missions. However, what I will remember most about working on this project are the people I work with. I have the honor of working daily with some of the most brilliant scientists in the space industry. They are from all over the country and around the world. Their brilliance, kindness, excitement, and unending love of, and dedication to, this project are inspiring. In addition, there are hundreds of support people, like myself, from many different backgrounds who possess the same love and enthusiasm for this project as do the scientists and engineers who designed and built the rovers and their instruments. It is the people who will bring space exploration to ever greater accomplishments.

If there is one piece of advice I can give to kids it is to follow your dreams. Figure out what you are good at and apply it to what you love. Whether you are an accountant, an attorney, a writer, an educator or almost any other profession I can think of, use your talents to advance something you love. If you love baseball and you are a writer, try to get a job writing about sports. If you are an educator and love the arts, try to get a job that promotes the arts. And, if you are an accountant or an attorney that dreams about exploring other planets, get a job on a space mission. Never give up your dreams.

Diane Bollen

I have been involved with the Athena project from the very beginning. I worked with Prof. Squyres and his colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California writing the original proposal. That was in 1997. Since that time, I have taken on many roles, everything from creating blind calibration samples for the APXS to classroom visits where I teach kids about Mars and the mission.

Diane Bollen poses with the Mars Rover model while at the Smithsonian Institution's 2002 Mars Day festivities.

I have always been intrigued by what is in the sky and the realization that it is one of our "final frontiers." It helps to have grown up in an area where a view of the night sky is not hampered by the glare of city lights. I was born in a small town in Upstate New York called Penn Yan. After high school, I attended a local community college while working full time, then transferred to Cornell University where I earned my Bachelor of Science degree. I was always interested in, well, everything. But I was very curious about science -- of any kind. I changed my major in college four times in two years and then completed graduate work in three different areas.

Before delving into a career in space science, I focused on matters of this planet. I worked on watershed geochemistry in the Department of Ecology. I have also been an associate editor of a science journal, and an assistant museum curator. Then came Mars. There are many cool things about being involved with the Mars Exploration Rover mission. It is on the "cutting edge" of science -- we are trying to do things that have NEVER been done before. Since I have a strong biology and geochemistry background, I am intrigued by the idea that Mars once may have had conditions very similar to early Earth - when life first came about. Another cool thing about this mission is that I get to work with many interesting people who I am very proud to call my friends.

My work at Cornell has also involved other space missions. I have worked on the Cassini mission to Jupiter and Saturn, and the NEAR mission to the asteroid Eros. I assisted with image sequencing for both missions and will continue with Cassini when MER has ended. But Mars demands most of my attention these days. Still, I am able to find time to be a musician, a writer, and an artist.

The best advice I can give to kids who may be interested in a career in space science is to explore what intrigues you, question everything, and let your creativity flow.

Pamela Smith

The exquisite beauty of the night sky has captivated me for many years. I cannot resist stepping into my backyard on a clear night and staring at the blanket of stars above me. But ever since I was a child, my first love has been writing. The Mars Exploration Rover Mission has allowed me to bring together these two powerful forces in my life. I am the editor and lead writer for this website.

Pam Smith at her desk working on the Athena web page.

During the three years that I have worked for Prof. Squyres, I have absorbed an enormous amount of information about Mars and the rover mission. I have been able to communicate with leading scientists from around the world for the purpose of explaining complex scientific issues and concepts in laymen's terms. Some of my favorite moments are the spontaneous, one-on-one teaching sessions provided by Prof. Squyres when I ask a question about the mission or Mars. These sessions are often accompanied by broad strokes of a marker on the white board in my office. Then I convey what I have learned to you through these pages.

I guess the groundwork for this combination of science and writing was laid down in my college years. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in communication arts from Cornell University. Note the words "science" and "communication" in the same sentence. The "communication" end of things would express itself in jobs at newspapers and radio stations. But the "science" end of things would lie dormant -- perhaps expressing itself in my fascination for science fiction and interesting science facts. I have stacks of videos of old sci-fi movies, and folders fat with newspaper clippings that run the gamut of topics from crop circles to sunspots.

It wasn't until I began writing scripts for an international radio production company that the "communication" and the "science" began to come together. I wrote scripts that were full of information about the ocean, about nature, and about the environment. Then, Mars stepped into my life -- and what a wonderful experience it has been.

Never did I ever dream that I would be taking trips to California to participate in science team meetings at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Never did I ever dream that I would be in the same room with spacecraft that would be going to Mars. Never did I ever dream that I would be part of a mission to Mars! The pace is unreal, the days extremely exciting and unpredictable, the experience -- Way Cool. I often say that it's like hanging on to the tail of a comet.

Now when I gaze at the night sky and see the dusty red glow of a planet called Mars, I feel like I'm looking at my second home.

So if you feel you don't have the "right stuff" to be part of a space mission, think again. It could happen. Work at what you love and be ready for wherever that love takes you. Your journey may be out of this world!