by ALEXANDRA RETTER
The rocks were perched in nitrogen cases. Winona State University (WSU) geoscience professor and planetary geologist Jennifer Anderson and several of her students had to don white cleanroom suits before entering the room. They were now about to view the rocks from the moon and hear the stories of those who preserve them.
Seeing rocks from the lunar surface at the Johnson Space Center came about as a result of Anderson’s work to study the craters left behind when objects impact a planet’s surface, known as impact craters. She has been part of various research teams that have earned grants from NASA and most recently received funding this fall. She also involves undergraduate students in her studies and has been able to take them to the Johnson Space Center to observe and, in some cases, complete work.
In the research that was mostly recently funded by NASA, Anderson and her colleagues will work to understand the subsurface of the moon and how the materials it is made of are ejected from craters.
High-resolution cameras have allowed for small impact craters on the moon to be studied, and it has been discovered that these craters may have terraces or blocks instead of an expected smooth bowl shape like an ice cream scoop, Anderson shared.
“Maybe these blocks are being formed during the impact process … maybe blocks are beneath the surface, like boulders beneath the surface, and they’re being excavated,” Anderson said.
Researching the lunar surface on a small, detailed scale will contribute to studies of the history of different regions of the moon, as well as work centered on the possibility of establishing human habitats there.
“In terms of human exploration, you can imagine standing on the moon. The odds of getting hit by a rock are small. But if … [an object] hits the surface and sends rocks above the surface that are traveling across the moon surface, it’s going to re-impact the surface. The odds we have a habitat there, and then it sends a wall of rock at us, is statistically much more likely.”
Anderson said that when the grant application was submitted, she was not sure she and her colleagues would earn the funding.
“The scientists who reviewed the proposals agreed that not only the work we’re doing is fundamental, but we’re the group who can do the work,” Anderson shared.
Undergraduate students have been a key part of that group, she added. The students hired to work in her lab assisted with data analysis and image processing, for instance. The funding would not have been received if NASA did not believe they could complete such work, she noted.
“I point that out to our students all the time, because I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin,” Anderson stated. “I dreamt of working with NASA … We all dream of things like that. We may think, ‘I’m at a state university in a rural county.’ You may not think you can do things like this, but students are capable of doing this.”
When they visit the Johnson Space Center, the students learn what being a scientist is truly like, seeing the scientific process in action with all the setbacks that may arise when an experiment is not quite working out, Anderson said. “I think we have an idea of what NASA looks like from movies. It doesn’t look like that … when mistakes are made or things go wrong, it can take days to figure out what went wrong,” she shared.
Those observations, in addition to completing work in her lab, may help them realize they can be a scientist, too, Anderson said. “It breaks down the idea that scientists are strange, smart people in rooms,” she explained.
Anderson has been fascinated by the night sky since around the time she was in first grade. As a child growing up in Wisconsin, she built a telescope, studied the stars and read “Cosmos.” By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to study astronomy and help science teachers perfect their craft. She also knew that to accomplish these goals, she would need to earn a Ph.D.
She began by earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota. While there, she considered what within the vast realm of space piqued her interest and recognized that the answer was planets. She then studied geology so she could understand Earth before learning about other planets’ geology.
When it came time to apply to graduate programs, she received a call from a professor at Brown University. They asked if she would be interested in researching impact craters. She said that at the time she got the call, she would have studied any topic related to space. She told the professor yes, and she was off to Rhode Island to earn her master’s degree and Ph.D.
Anderson wanted to return to Wisconsin or Minnesota after the years of work it took to earn her Ph.D. She conducted a job search in that area and ultimately found her way to WSU, where she is now in her 16th year as a professor.
She teaches courses in geology, elementary education and astronomy. She also advises students who are earth science teaching majors.
“The short answer was that it is kind of a convoluted, accidental path I followed, but I’m glad to be here,” Anderson shared. “I’m glad to be here, and I’ve met some amazing people. And I’m so glad that the funding has started to come in more reliably for me and students at Winona State.” Like many professors, she said, “We love what we learn about, even if it’s our own little piece of nature or history, and it helps us teach better if we stay active in our research.”
Anderson brings her scientific perspective to many aspects of her life. “I approach my whole world from the lens of running different experiments and throwing out things that don’t work and bringing in new ideas,” she said.