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A Voyage of Discovery with Amy Mainzer

A Voyage of Discovery with Amy Mainzer Amy Mainzer with Mike Cushing in a conference room at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. This is a dramatized image, enhanced with a starry sky, illustrating the mood during what astronomers call remote observing.


This feature was written by high school student Jasmin Ionescu as part of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's ongoing celebration of Women's History Month 2012. Learn more at www.jpl.nasa.gov/whm


As soon as I saw her name and job description, I knew. I said to myself, "I have to meet this person whose job is watching and studying our amazing galaxy, whose job is to see every moment of every day what the rest of us only see on Discovery Channel."

I was chosen by my high school to write an article about one of the women scientists who work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part its Women's History Month celebration. I chose Amy Mainzer, an expert on asteroids and the evolution of galaxies. She's the deputy project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mission, a four channel, super-cooled infrared telescope designed to survey the entire sky with 1,000 times more sensitivity than previous infrared missions. In her role, Amy gets to research asteroids, brown dwarfs, planetary atmospheres, debris disks and star formation, and she's involved in the design and construction of instrumentation for ground and space missions.

Mainzer and I agreed to meet on a Friday afternoon at the Caltech campus. I can't emphasize enough how time crawled that day. It felt as if the arms of the clock were standing still, as if time itself had stopped. In my mind, I had pictured a much older person, but to my surprise, waiting for me was a vibrant young lady radiating enthusiasm, confidence and intelligence.

We made our way into the building where she works, and the moment she started talking about her job, I got captivated and forgot all the questions I had prepared for her. It was like everything disappeared around me, and I got immersed in her world.

Soon, I began to get a clear understanding of what the scientists at JPL do. But I was curious what brought all these experts and Mainzer, herself, to JPL. The answer was quite simple.

"The JPL team is a group of people who are really some of the best in the world at building and launching space satellites, space-based telescopes and robot missions to learn about our universe," Mainzer said. "There are few places that do that kind of work. Every time I go in the gate, I think, 'Wow! This is a really cool place! I'm really lucky to work here.'"

I'd say that JPL is pretty lucky to employ her. Not many women go into a field like hers and become as successful. Amy is truly one-of-a-kind. She's a Harry Potter fanatic, loves math and roller blading, and most important, her job.

"I'm interested in all kinds of astronomy," she said. "But the project I had been working on happened to be particularly good at looking at asteroids. I started reading about the asteroids, and I thought, 'Wow! This is kind of fun. It's really interesting. They move!' It sounds simple, but when you study astronomy, a lot of the things you look at are really far away, and to our perspective, they don't move very fast. They look fixed. But with asteroids, they move and they get very close, so constantly they're kind of fun." 

I thought Mainzer's line of work sounded fantastic and I realized that maybe it's not so hard to be a woman working in science, especially when you have as much passion and intelligence as Mainzer. It was clear from my interview that JPL is a beehive that nurtures and acquires young, brilliant, enthusiastic minds. Mainzer taught me a lot, and I wish to follow in her footsteps. She's a very bright young lady who's part of a brilliant team of scientists who are trailblazing and opening the doors for future generations of teenagers.