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Cosmic Dust Detective

Cosmic Dust Detective Spitzer scientist Farisa Morales. Image credit: NASA/JPL


March 9, 2010

Farisa Morales spends most of her day trying to unravel the mysteries of dust. No, it's not the all-too-familiar dust bunnies under your bed. Morales studies stars with circumstellar debris disks. These are dusty ring-like structures that circle some stars and may hint at planet formation processes. An internship at JPL helped set her career path as a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Southern California (USC) and as a JPL scientist with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

JPL: What is the mystery in these dust disks?

FM: It's been very difficult to see planets around distant stars - they are just too far away and too dim - so we use a variety of clever approaches to detect or infer their presence. In the case of debris disks, we use Spitzer's infrared detectors to sense the heat from the dusty rings. Many of these rings are geometrically similar to the asteroid and Kuiper belts in our own solar system. These "belts" are home to asteroids and comets, which are remnants of planet formation in our solar system billions of years ago. Thus, studying debris disks is an indirect way to probe the underlying planetary systems.

JPL: What made you want to be an astronomer?

FM: In school, I knew I was good at math but I did not want to maximize profit for some company, I wanted to help answer questions about our physical world. Where do we come from? Are systems like our solar system common? Astronomy is a colorful field where mathematics is the language and helps address those questions. I feel like I'm helping decipher one tiny piece of the huge puzzle that is the cosmos.

JPL: What is a typical day like?

FM: Some days I come to JPL where I lead the life of a scientist! I sit at my computer to analyze Spitzer data, meet with other scientists, read reports about new findings, propose for future observations and prepare to present my results to experts around the country. Other days I go to USC and work as a teacher assistant running astronomy labs for undergrads and hosting "tours" around the night sky. In the afternoons, I go home and cook for my family. Then everybody does homework, or in my case, remote research. I love ending the night with an episode of one of my favorite sci-fi series.

JPL: That sounds like you're juggling three jobs - scientist, student and mom. How do you keep it all going?

FM: One hour at a time. My children are at school for most of the day so that gives me time for my studies and research. School is not eternal -- 10 years will go by equally whether I complete a degree or not, so I prefer to do so. Hopefully soon when I graduate I can concentrate on research only. It has been hectic but worth every bit of it.

JPL: How did your internship at JPL affect your career?

FM: While I was attending Los Angeles Mission College my physics professor pointed me towards a program called JPLUS - the JPL Undergraduate Scholars program for community college students. One of the benefits of this program was the opportunity to compete for a "SURF" (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) -- a summer internship at Caltech or JPL. During my 10-week internship I was mentored my Senior Engineer Lloyd French (then at JPL), and my task was to design the telecommunications and ground systems of a rover mission to the north pole of Mars. I learned a lot about the engineering aspect of space missions.

It was then that I realized I could get involved in space exploration -- I was 25! At the end of the internship I was hired as an academic part-timer at JPL during the school year.

By then, I had transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics in 2003. I completed a Master's degree in physics at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) in 2005.

JPL: Any regrets?

FM: No regrets, but changing majors at the age of 25 can be very confusing -- I felt I was running out of time. And sometimes I feel like the alien of my extended family -- there are no scientists in my family.

JPL: Any advice for young people who are thinking about becoming a scientist or astronomer?

FM: Do internships! Get some hands-on experience so that you really get to see if your field of interest is for you.

For information on all internships offered at JPL, go to http://education.jpl.nasa.gov .