Andrea Donnellan, Geophysicist Exploring Earth

› Larger image
Donnellan is one of JPL's movers and shakers in Earth science, keeping tabs on seismic activity, particularly in frozen terrain.

While the Antarctic is much colder than her sunny California home, geophysicist Andrea Donnellan has been there many times to conduct field studies on plate tectonics, the movement of Earth's surface. Since 1993, she has been with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as a researcher. She is currently deputy section manager of the Exploration Systems Autonomy Section, which has as its goal to provide computing and autonomy technologies for coming generations of highly autonomous space missions.

Donnellan received a bachelor of science in geology, with a minor in mathematics, from Ohio State University, Columbus, and holds her masters in science and Ph.D. in geophysics from CalTech. She has twice been a finalist in the astronaut selection process and continues to pursue her goal to become an astronaut. She is an instrument rated pilot, and enjoys running, ballet, piano and photography. The subject of most of her current photos (and spare time) is her three-year-old son Alexander. If that isn't enough, she is a research professor in earth sciences at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and is simultaneously working on a master's degree in computer science there.

Q: What are your current major projects?
A: Research into tectonic plate deformation in the Antarctic and interpreting data from the Southern California GPS [global positioning satellites] system, using high performance computing to better understand earthquakes.

Q: Have you always been interested in tectonics and Antarctica?
A: As a 4-H'r in Arlington Heights, Illinois, I liked rock trips. I was interested in geology and Antarctica. I wanted to go to Mars and figured that Antarctica was the next best place. I went to Ohio State because they have a big polar research program there. As an undergraduate, I went to Antarctica three times to do research in ice sheet movement and discovered I like to watch things move. I switched to plate tectonics at Caltech.

Q: How many times have you been to the Antarctic? Where else have you done field research?
A: I've been to Antarctica six times. I've worked all through Southern California, on the San Andreas [fault] and around the Northridge and Hector Mine earthquakes. I've also been to northwestern Mongolia, which is beautiful, and Bolivia at the Uyuni Salt Flat, which is cold, dry and dusty.

Q: What's it like working in an extreme environment such as Antarctica?
A: Well, when you're outside [anywhere] and bundled up warmly, there's nothing like it. When you're outside in Antarctica and it's cold, there's nothing like that. It's spectacular - you just have to stay warm.

Q: What inspired your interest in science? Did you narrow in on your field very early?
A: I always wanted to be a scientist, since I was three or five. I narrowed it down by the time I was a sophomore or junior in high school. I like outdoor work and I like computers. I switched from geology to geophysics in graduate school because I prefer the more mathematical quantitative approach of geophysics.

Q: Is your son interested in science?
A: He's into collecting bugs right now. He wants us both to be astronauts. He's said, "You can go to Mars and I'll go to Earth." I like to say that he's the future Mars Rover. He thinks I work in space.

Q: What advice would you give to students now?
A: Take science, math and computer classes. There are always [science] projects that need help, even for a high school student. Computer modeling and writing a computer code on the West Antarctica ice sheet as an undergrad was very good for me. Hands-on is critical for developing intuition and understanding. Go talk to professors or teachers to get involved. Seek advice - more information is better than less.