portraits - Dr. Nina Lanza

As a girl, Nina Lanza ’01 loved science fiction, outer space and Halley’s comet. When she came to Smith, she studied astronomy. But she nearly passed on graduate school, having absorbed the cultural message that girls aren’t scientists. “It took until my then boyfriend (now my husband) stated the obvious,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You should apply to graduate school in space science.’ That’s what launched me.”
Now a staff scientist at Los Alamos (New Mexico) National Laboratory, Lanza gets to do gee-whiz tasks like shooting laser beams at rocks on Mars. She is part of a team that remotely operates an instrument on board the Mars rover Curiosity in order to study the chemical composition of the Red Planet. Last winter she also spent five weeks in a tent in Antarctica as one of eight members of the 2015–16 Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) field team, supported by NASA. Here, in an edited interview, Lanza talks about exploring the universe and why it’s important to learn about our nearest planetary neighbor.

I get to see things no one has seen before. Every day in my work, I get to explore a new world. The instrument I operate, ChemCam, uses an incredibly powerful infrared laser to vaporize tiny amounts of Mars rock. Then we collect the light emitted by the vaporized rock to analyze the rock’s chemical composition. We’ve done 300,000 individual chemical analyses.

I was a part of this mission from the beginning … I joined the team in 2006, just as ChemCam was being built at Los Alamos. I chose to attend the University of New Mexico doctoral program in earth and planetary sciences specifically because it gave me a chance to be a part of this mission. By the time Curiosity landed in 2012, I was a post-doc at Los Alamos.

and I got to be a part of history. I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (home base for robotic NASA missions) when the Curiosity landed, just a short distance from the engineers everyone saw on television. I was sick to my stomach with anxiety, so antsy I couldn’t even stay in my chair. Historically, two-thirds of Mars missions have crashed or been lost. So when we got word it had landed safely, everyone exploded into cheers. That’s when it hit me: I was a part of something huge and historic. But I had to get right to work checking the rover systems and getting our instrument ready to use.

There’s so much to learn from space exploration. We don’t fully understand the nature of planets or our solar system. How did the solar system evolve? Why is Mars the way it is, and how did it change over time? We will understand our own planet so much better—its potential future, its climate and oceans—by studying Mars.

You never know what you’re going to discover. I did part of my dissertation on rock varnish on Earth rocks—that shiny dark coating you find on desert rocks. This varnish is rich in manganese, which is associated with the rise of microbes on Earth. I toiled away in the lab for years, never expecting my research would have important implications for Mars. Then, years after I got my Ph.D., my team observed a funny-looking rock on Mars. When we analyzed it with ChemCam, we were surprised to find it had a high concentration of manganese. There are only a few possible explanations for this: Either there was once more oxygen in the Mars atmosphere or there were microbes on Mars. All of a sudden, my little grad school project became really important.

Mars will surprise us every time. Until now, we thought water on Mars was mostly acidic. But when Curiosity landed in Gale Crater, we found evidence that the sediments had been formed in lake water with a neutral pH. That’s a very big deal. If that lake had been on Earth, it would have been inhabited. That alone fundamentally changes our understanding of the planet.

The interior of Antarctica looks like Mars to me. It’s a harsh world. At the margins of the continent, you find life forms. But inside, you don’t see anything—not a plant, not an animal. I’ve never been to a place that’s so barren. Sometimes you can’t even tell the difference between sky and land. At night, in our communal tent, we’d read aloud from journal entries of the earliest Antarctic explorers—Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton—from the same date a century ago. The things they described—the fogs rolling in, the silence and the solitude—are still true today.

Antarctica tells us about outer space. The only materials we have on Earth that came from Mars are meteorites, and nearly all of them were found in Antarctica. As a team, we found 569 meteorites while we were out there this season, including one from Vesta, the second-largest asteroid in the asteroid belt.

We need to make room for women scientists. We need to explicitly say this to girls and women: “You should be a scientist.” Plenty of scientists on our team have families, and I plan to have one, too. This is an unusual line of work, so it won’t be easy, but I’ve seen it work. Having a workplace that values your talent is important in making it work.

SAQ, Summer 2016


Ali Benjamin’s novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, was a 2015 National Book Award finalist.