You are here

Quick Take: Out of This World

UNLV undergraduate and NASA intern Amber Turner shares her remarkable research journey, which may someday lead to human civilizations on other planets.

Research  |  May 3, 2017  |  By Alexandra Karosas
senior Amber Turner and alumna Lisa Danielson

UNLV senior Amber Turner connected with alumna Lisa Danielson, ’98 MS Geoscience, at a recent research fair on campus. Turner is completing a NASA internship. Danielson works for Jacobs Technology at NASA.  (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

When most people are told to shoot for the stars, they consider it friendly encouragement. Amber Turner, a first-generation UNLV senior majoring in geology, took the phrase more literally. The work she’s conducted alongside UNLV geoscience research professor Oliver Tschauner on meteorites propelled her to an eight-month internship studying with NASA through Jacobs (a NASA contractor) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, under the guidance of Lisa Danielson, Francis McCubbin, and Kathleen Vander Kaaden.

As a high-pressure experimental petrology intern, Turner is studying what happens to minerals when they are exposed to high pressures and temperatures in magmatic (magma-related) systems on the moon and Mars. These experiments help scientists understand petrogenesis, the geologic history of rocks, which ultimately provides insight into geologic processes on planets and informs scientists regarding the planets’ capacity for sustaining human life.

How did you decide to study geoscience?

I didn’t start out in geoscience at all. I was an international business major, but I’m a terrible salesperson, so I switched to environmental science. At the end of my sophomore year, I wanted to get into a lab where I could apply what I was learning in class, so I walked into the geoscience department and asked if there were any student jobs available. I didn’t know where to go but decided to just keep asking until I found a job.

Dr. Tschauner offered me a position in his lab studying meteorites. Two months in, I asked him how I could accomplish what he’s done, and he advised me to switch my major to geology, which incorporates more physics and chemistry, to become more competitive. I never dreamed I’d end up at NASA, though. It’s crazy. I wake up and drive to work at NASA!

Has your involvement in research led to your internship with NASA?

Participating in student research has definitely helped me get to this point. Everything has been a snowball effect.

Working with someone like Dr. Tschauner who is well-established in their career, who has connections, and who can point me in the right direction for internships and other opportunities has been invaluable. He’s well-known in the field; in fact, he just discovered a new mineral and is naming it!

I got my first internship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in California because of my experience working with him; he told me about it and suggested I look into doing it over a summer. There, I studied high-pressure mineral phases of olivine, a major constituent of Earth’s upper mantle and a mineral also found in meteorites.

Dr. Tschauner also suggested that I create a poster for an Undergraduate Research Forum as practice for the future, so I did. Dr. Liam Frink, executive director of the UNLV Office of Undergraduate Research, approached me there and asked if I would become an ambassador for his office, and I said yes. Ambassadors are the bridge between students and research professors on campus, pointing peers toward openings with faculty in their discipline.

Participating in events like the forum really helped my work get noticed. I’ve been able to network with people visiting from national laboratories and graduate schools. I met Dr. Lisa Danielson, an alumna who works at NASA, at one of UNLV’s annual GeoSymposia. She was there to encourage students to apply for internships at Jacobs.

What’s the impact of the research you’re conducting at NASA?

The direct application of my current project is to explore the possibility of humans someday living on Mars. If we want to know if planets are habitable and can someday sustain human life, we have to understand the geologic processes, atmosphere, water processes, and minerals that form on the planet—such as apatite, the mineral I’m studying. Apatite is found on Earth, the moon, and Mars. Studying terrestrial apatite in magmatic systems on Earth helps us understand magmatic systems on Mars and the moon. Apatite is an important mineral because its composition preserves geologic history, so by experimenting on it, we can learn about what happened on the planet in the past, which can inform us about future possibilities.

Has anything surprised you about working at NASA?

Before, when I thought about NASA, I always thought about astronauts and rovers—more engineering stuff. I wouldn’t have thought that petrology (the study of rock and mineral composition) was a big part of NASA’s space exploration objective. Now I realize there is so much more that goes into understanding our universe.

How has your research helped you in academia and beyond?

I’m definitely a more seasoned scientist than I would’ve been without research. I’ve learned a lot from the lab experience and gained a lot of hands-on skills sets that I couldn’t have attained anywhere else. Having the experiences I’ve had at UNLV, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Jacobs/NASA have helped me fine-tune my career goals.

I’ve also been able to obtain paid internships because of my research. That makes a significant difference for students, particularly ones like me who have to work while attending college. In addition to being a student, I had five part-time jobs at one point in my time at UNLV: working in Dr. Tschauner’s lab, being an OUR ambassador, substitute teaching in the Clark County School District, working on the Clinton campaign, and serving in the Army Reserve. Having paid internships with NASA and Lawrence Livermore has helped me reach my full potential as a scientist. When you work for a company that cares about your well-being, you’re able to completely indulge in your work and dedicate 100 percent of your time to research.

Dr. Tschauner, Dr. Danielson, the UNLV Department of Geoscience, and my mentors at Jacobs have paved the way for my career as a geologist and have provided me with all the tools to succeed in research and beyond. My family has also been tremendously supportive. No matter where science has taken me, they have been behind me 100 percent. My personal and professional colleagues have propelled me in a positive direction as well. I am who I am because of the support system that I have.

What’s next for you?

My No. 1 goal is to apply for another internship with Jacobs for the summer of 2018. Until then, I will be finishing up my bachelor’s in geology and applying to graduate schools. I expect to graduate in fall 2018. I’m hoping to eventually do my master’s thesis in collaboration with NASA.

In the immediate future, I’m hoping to become a published author on the research that I have conducted here at NASA JSC and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I might go back to Lawrence Livermore over the 2017 winter break, if funding is available.

What inspires you to keep doing the work you’re doing?

I love that there will always be something to examine, a question that hasn’t been answered yet. Being a part of space exploration in particular is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. There are so many questions about our universe that we still have to answer, and I believe scientists are acting as pioneers for our survival. They’re the ones asking questions and running experiments to find out if life is sustainable on other planets. I feel, in a way, that I’m contributing to that goal of helping our species survive.