Spotlight on the Community: April Davis

April Davis is a new member of the Hieroglyph community. She is studying geophysics and astronomy at Cal Poly Pomona and can be found doing field work in the Arctic, Hawaii, and at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

I caught up with April over email to talk about her latest adventures and how science fiction inspired her passion for science.

April DavisBob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: What are you working on right now?

April Davis: My team is currently analyzing impact ejecta, secondary craters, and slope distribution of Martian terrain in support of the future Mars InSight lander mission. Basically, I’m projecting and layering various data types (visual, digital elevation, thermal emission) to make maps that will allow us to determine the safest place to land. I’m at JPL as part of the Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, but will continue working here as a part-time intern through at least the fall quarter. So, I should get to do the same type of stuff for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission!!! 😀 (I am obviously very excited.)

My last internship (last summer I was in the High Arctic testing the IceBreaker-3 drill) was actually a competitor to the project I’m working on now. It’s been really interesting to have the experience of working on a couple of different missions – especially seeing how different NASA centers operate. It’s also renewed my interest in engineering.

I miss designing and building stuff. A few years ago, I designed an optical head-mounted display that could be used to help geologists wearing spacesuits – because so much of what we do is impossible to do in a spacesuit. The design was accepted for a talk at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing that year, but I couldn’t fund myself to attend. I never actually built my prototype, and regret that pretty often. I need someone to help me with coding, but eventually I will get around to it.

BB: What does the future look like to you, and what are you most excited about?

AD: I’m really excited about the possibility of human spaceflight, space tourism, and Moon bases. As a self-described tree-hugger, it took me a long time to come to terms with my desire to explore other planets due to the waste of valuable resources here on Earth; the likelihood that we would just exploit other planets for materials; and the possibility that we could stunt evolving life on another planet. These are all real concerns, and the last is something that we should take very seriously. There are planetary protection laws in place to mitigate the damage we do, but those laws might not be enough in the face of the aggressive lobbying that would almost certainly happen if a profit could be turned.

I’m all for colonization of Mars as well. I’ve done a couple of rotations out at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, simulating a Mars habitat environment. I’ve also done research at Mars analog sites in the High Arctic and Death Valley.

BB: So you’re ready to go?

AD: Definitely! Many organizations, including JPL, have plans to get people to Mars by the 2030s. Some of those plans include staying for a couple weeks, and some include staying until death. Private organizations like SpaceX are also planning missions. Elon Musk has said that he would like to retire on Mars, and he seems like the kind of man who works hard to make things happen. However, SpaceX hasn’t yet managed a successful spacecraft landing on a planet other than Earth (and that was in the water). So they have a long road ahead of them. I’m hopeful that they will make some headway sooner rather than later, because I would love to sign up for the SpaceX Mars retirement plan.

In the meantime, I would be happy just to have samples brought back to Earth. Mars 2020 is supposed to collect samples that will be brought back as part of a different mission – it was too expensive to incorporate sample return into Mars 2020. The thought of waiting all those years for samples breaks my heart.

BB: What are your biggest challenges, and how do you deal with them?

AD: Planetary science research is extremely competitive. During my first few internships, I encountered so many people who were discouraging students from pursuing planetary science unless they wanted to devote their lives to it and were okay with not making much money. I am okay with both of those things, but it still worried me. Fortunately, I was lucky to have a mentor who not only encouraged me, but pretty much convinced me not to turn my back on Mars research. It meant a lot to me. I have really bad impostor syndrome, but she made me feel like I belong.

I hope I can have that type of impact on the life of a student one day. I would especially like to mentor young women. There are a number of reasons why women drop out of STEM, but I believe that too often it’s because of the way they are treated by people in the field.

BB: What is your favorite science fiction story or vision for the future?

AD: Tough question. When I was young, I was lucky enough to have an uncle that was really into sci-fi. I would often stay with him and my aunt, and he would let me watch ANYTHING I wanted. So I probably knew all the words to the Evil Dead script by the time I was five years old. We also watched an episode of The X-Files every week; I think that really taught me to be skeptical. Scully was my favorite. I didn’t have any role models when I was young; I really admired her. In later years, Colonel Carter from Stargate SG-1 would have a huge impact on my life. Her character made me realize that women could be good at math – as a kid I wasn’t good at math and was discouraged from trying because “girls just aren’t good at math.” I already had the desire to explore (or maybe just to run), but I hadn’t thought about exploring other planets yet.

Also, one of my exes is doing Mars research because he read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and it gave him the desire to colonize Mars. He took me to the Mars Society Convention back in 2012, and that’s how I got hooked up with the Mars Desert Research Station. In a way, part of what I’m doing today is also because of him (and KSR by proxy). Without sci-fi, I have no idea what I would be doing with my life, but I very seriously doubt it would be working for NASA.

After writing all of this, I really have to go with Stargate SG-1 as my favorite – even though it doesn’t really take place in the future. The protagonists are very into the science, but they’re also compassionate and ethical. If we ever make contact with sentient beings from outside of our solar system, I’d hope the leadership of Earth could be so elegant.