The Adler Planetarium honors Rosaly Lopes

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Thursday, May 03, 2018

Rosaly Lopes (R) poses with the 2018 Women In Space Science Award next to Adler Planetarium President and CEO Michelle Larson. // Photo: Carasco Photography, Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

Planetary science is the study of planets, satellites, and other small bodies in our solar system; and, in recent decades, those in other solar systems as well. Planetary scientists have the unique ability to send probes to better study or even physically touch their targets, while astronomers and astrophysicists are limited to peering at faraway objects they will never reach. Planetary science and planetary geology can be done right at home, here on Earth, by studying our own planet, as well as those that share our Sun with us. This amazing field links Earth back into the larger whole of planetary bodies, showing that while our planet is unique in many ways (thus far), it is not, by any means, alone.

If you’re an avid reader of our magazine, the name Rosaly Lopes may ring a bell. Our February 2018 issue featured an article by Michael Carroll and Rosaly Lopes: “Enceladus on Earth.” It is the story of their journey to the world’s southernmost active volcano, Antartica’s Mount Erebus, in search of the processes and landscapes we might find on other worlds — such as, you might guess, Enceladus — by studying some of the most remote and most extreme places right here on Earth. Going further back, you may also recognize her name from articles in April 2012 or November 2010.

Dr. Lopes is a planetary scientist and volcanologist currently working as a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Her experience includes not only fieldwork around active volcanoes on Earth, but also work on the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn, studying the geology of Io and Titan, respectively. Her name is in the 2006 Guinness Book of World Records for the discovery of the most active volcanoes anywhere, following her identification of 71 active volcanoes on Io. More recently, she became the first female to serve as chief editor of the planetary science journal Icarus.

Nathalea Espinosa (center) poses with her award, flanked by Carsi Hughes (L) and Meg Sauer, president of the Adler's Women's Board. // Photo: Carasco Photography, Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

This April, Dr. Lopes was celebrated as the recipient of the Adler Planetarium Women’s Board’s 16th annual Women In Space Science Award. Each year, a woman is chosen from the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) not only for success in her chosen career, but for her role as inspiration for young women who are currently seeking their own path to aim for the stars. In addition to the Women In Space Science Award, the Women’s Board also bestows the Paul H. Knappenberger, Jr., Ph.D. STEM Award to a graduating senior who embodies the spirit of STEM education and advocacy. This year’s recipient was Nathalea Espinosa, who has been an active participant in the planetarium’s Teen Programs

Dr. Lopes is not only a brilliant scientist, she is also dedicated to spreading her joy of science to others. She participates extensively in science outreach and has authored numerous books and articles, from work featured in Astronomy magazine to The Volcano Adventure Guide and Alien Seas. I was invited to attend the award celebration and fundraiser hosted by the Adler Planetarium’s Women’s Board on April 24, as well as follow the program into the afternoon as students took part in unique and engaging STEM activities. 

Getting to know Rosaly Lopes

As a little girl growing up in Brazil near Ipanema Beach, Dr. Lopes was first inspired by the astronauts of the day. But as she grew older, she realized her dream of becoming one wasn’t likely — not only was she Brazilian (there were no Brazilian astronauts, only American and Russian), but she was female (and all the astronauts, save one, were male) and she had terrible eyesight. “So it wasn’t going to work,” she admits.

Dr. Lopes gives her keynote presentation at the award luncheon. // Photo: Astronomy, Alison Klesman

Instead, she decided that she would study astronomy and become a scientist. But most people, she said, laughed and thought this ambition was cute. They didn’t think she was serious, but “I proved them wrong.”

Another major source of inspiration occurred in her teenage years, when the Apollo 13 mission took place. The newspapers printed a picture of Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, she says, and it further bolstered her desire and confidence to pursue a career in science: “She was a woman and she was in Mission Control.”

With the support of her parents, Lopes pursued her higher education at University College London. It was there that she discovered that it was planetary science and geology, not astronomy, that was her true passion. “During that time, I took a final-year course in planetary geology,” she says. “I had a professor, Dr. John Guest, who was so inspiring — on the third week of classes, he didn’t show up. He sent a young man, a substitute, and the young man said, ‘Well, Mount Etna, this volcano in Sicily, erupted, and the professor had to go.’ And I thought, ‘That’s really exciting, that’s what I want to do.’ So I started to going to volcanoes.”

Lopes studied under Guest to earn her Ph.D., and later took a postdoctoral position at JPL in 1989. She originally worked on Mars, but was told that she’d have to start doing something else, as no plans existed to return to the Red Planet at the time (she laughs, now, at how things have changed). She turned to the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and worked on observation planning for Io and studied the volcanic moon in the infrared with the Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (NIMS) instrument.

When Galileo ended, Lopes became part of the Cassini mission’s radar team, and now studies Titan. “My main work has been on Titan and figuring out the geologic history of the surface, doing a global geologic map of Titan, and studying the features that we think are cryovolcanoes,” she says.

Two young students discuss how they will program their robotic rover's actions during the Adler's afternoon STEM activities. // Photo: Michael Monar, Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

Spotlight on women in science

The Women in Space Science Award Celebration is more than just an award ceremony, luncheon, and talk. Following the award and keynote presentation at the Drake Hotel, young girls from the Chicago area gather at the Adler Planetarium to take part in a variety of STEM activities, as well as hear Dr. Lopes speak about her love of science and the experiences that have brought her to where she is today. After her presentation, students lined up to ask questions, inquiring about everything from Lopes’ views on climate change to the dangers of visiting active volcanoes. In response to questions, she spoke about the challenges of attending university-level classes not only in a non-native language, but also within a system that had prepared its students differently for college courses. Despite being at the top of her class in Brazil, she struggled at first in classes with students who had specialized in physics and astronomy during the latter part of their high school education. But, she says, she kept going, and here she is, today.

In addition to attending the presentation, students separated into groups to take part in STEM activity stations that included programming rovers to perform tasks such as singing a tune or navigating an obstacle course, designing a “spacesuit” that would protect a marshmallow during decompression in a vacuum chamber, and building an apparatus capable of gathering iron meteorites from the bottom of a lake and bringing them to the surface.

At each station, I was impressed not only with the enthusiasm of the Adler staff (as I always am), but also with the quality of the tools they were using and the attentiveness of the girls — a sure sign that the activities were engaging and exciting. The Adler’s Far Horizons balloon team lent their equipment to illustrate how hard it is to hit a small target on a planet’s surface with a spacecraft launched from far away at the “Can You Land on Mars?” station. “Zoom In Meteorite” was a newly designed activity based on the Aquarius Project, a teen-driven effort that will dredge Lake Michigan for pieces of the 600-pound meteorite that streaked into the lake near Sheboygan, Wisconsin, last year. Led by a teen volunteer involved in the project, girls put together their own ROV sledge and watched as it was pulled along a floor scattered with magnetic “meteorites.” Once the number of captured meteorites had been noted, they were asked what they could do to improve their design to bring up even more, encouraging the girls to further exercise their creativity and problem-solving skills.

Following your passion

Ultimately, the purpose of the Women In Space Science Award is to show young girls that not only are science, engineering, and math interesting and exciting, but that they can pursue a career in these fields and achieve success. The day is meant to celebrate not only those women who are achieving great things in science today, but also to encourage and support those who will achieve greater things tomorrow.

Dr. Lopes reprises her presentation for an audience of young girls at the Adler Planetarium. // Photo: Michael Monar, Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

When she was a graduate student, Dr. Lopes says, “I was the first female graduate student there. All the other women were secretaries, so I was the only woman on staff.” But her experiences, she went on, were positive: “I was used to being the only woman on a field trip or in a group. And it didn’t really bother me. I never really sort of focused on that, and everyone was really professional and nice. So if people had prejudice I can’t say that I really encountered it. I didn’t go looking for it, I just did my work.”

The Adler’s goal in promoting STEM activities and education among young people today is to change part of that picture, so that young women are no longer the only females in their fields. Their goal is also to ensure these young women are indeed treated professionally and with respect, so their experiences can be positive as well. The field of planetary science, Lopes says, is about 30 to 35 percent female. Astrophysics remains more heavily male dominated, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.

Ultimately, Lopes says of both her success and her enjoyment of her career, “I think that everyone needs to find a passion and follow that. I think that’s the most important thing that I tell them: You need to find that subject, that one thing, that you really, really want to do. It could be science, it could be art, it could be music, but you have to be passionate about it because in order to succeed at that, you have to be very dedicated. So you better really be passionate about it.”

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