Michigan Honors Alum, Now a Ph.D. Astrophysicist–Favorite Course Was Great Books

Editor’s Note:  This post is excerpted from a story by Jacquelyn Turkovich for the University of Michigan:

Ryan Anderson (BS with Distinction, Astronomy & Astrophysics with Honors, and General Physics, 2006) was working on his senior honors thesis, he felt he was in over his head….“But it was still a good experience.  I got my first taste of what it’s like to be involved on a proposed spacecraft instrument, and some of the pattern recognition stuff that I studied for the project has come in handy in my work on data processing for ChemCam.”  The results of his undergraduate research may not have been used for much, but his work since then has been useful both on earth and on Mars.

Anderson’s undergraduate career prepared him for further study in Planetary Science at Cornell University, where he earned and a Ph.D. in 2011. There, Anderson worked with Jim Bell, the lead scientist for the color cameras on the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2003.  His thesis work at Cornell included geologic and thermophysical unit mapping of Gale crater, which was ultimately chosen as the landing site for the Mars rover, Curiosity.  “Gale crater is interesting for a few reasons. First, it’s a very deep hole in the ground, so that makes it a good candidate for a past lake,” explains Anderson.  “We can also see from orbit that it has at least two distinct kinds of water-related minerals: clays and sulfates, and the transition from environments that form clays to those that form sulfates is very interesting. But the main attraction at Gale is the 5.5 kilometer (about 18,000 foot) tall mountain of layered rocks in the middle of the crater called Aeolis Mons or ‘Mt. Sharp’. For geologists, layers in rocks are like the pages in a history book about the planet. Each layer represents a different environment that we can learn about, and by climbing up the lower part of Mt. Sharp, we get to study how the habitability of the environment on early Mars changed over time.”  More information about Curiosity and Gale crater can be found at mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/.

After earning his PhD, Anderson was offered the Shoemaker Postdoctoral Fellowship at the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, AZ.  The Shoemaker Fellowship is funded through NASA Planetary Geology and Geophysics and is a two-year rotational position.  Anderson is a member of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) ChemCam team, under his advisor, Ken Herkenhoff.  He explains, “For my thesis work [at Cornell], I also did a lot of work on methods for analyzing Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy data.  The gist of the method is that you zap a rock with a laser and use the spectrum of the resulting spark to tell what the rock is made of.  The ChemCam instrument on Curiosity uses this technique.”  Since Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012, Anderson has been involved in rover operations and continued to work on analyzing data from ChemCam.  He feels “unbelievably lucky” that he was able to join the MSL science team and loves being a part of the “excitement of the mission.”  Anderson hopes to earn a permanent position, ideally at USGS in Flagstaff, so that he can continue working on the MSL mission.  And it’s not just for the perks, though there are certainly some of those!

One fringe benefit of participating on a mission team is travel opportunities.  “Meetings and conferences are not that exciting — I’ve visited Houston and Pasadena more times than I can count — but I have had the chance to go on geology field trips to fun locations, including Hawaii, Moab, Glacier National Park, and Timmins, Ontario (location of one of the world’s deepest copper mines).  Also, the ChemCam team is half French, so sometimes I have to go to France.”  Anderson is also interested in teaching, public speaking, and blogging — which he pursues alongside his research and MSL work.  “I study Mars and shoot things with lasers.  I also read and blog and write,” says Anderson’s Twitter profile.

While Anderson’s blogging career began in 2007 with Inescapable Perspective, he “really began blogging in earnest” in 2008 with The Martian Chronicles, a planetary-science themed blog, which began as an assignment for a science communications class at Cornell….As his career progressed, it became more complicated for Anderson to blog about the space program and the MSL mission, so in July 2013, he officially ended The Martian Chronicles

Blogging is still something that Anderson enjoys, so he now maintains a personal blog at www.ryanbanderson.com.  There, he plans to post about a variety of topics, which includes science topics, but also personal posts, book reviews, and anything else he wants to write about just for fun.  In addition to maintaining his own blogs, Anderson also contributes to Thwacke!, which provides science consulting for video game developers, and Science in my Fiction, which explores ideas for incorporating better science in speculative fiction.  For some, science and writing seem to be completely different worlds, but Anderson has always been interested in both.

As an undergraduate, Anderson considered double-majoring in English and Astronomy before settling on Physics and Astronomy.  It’s not much of a surprise, then, that his favorite course was in the humanities.  “Even though I’m a science person, my favorite Honors course was Great Books.  The reading load was a lot at the time, but the profs were some of the best I’ve had (and, at this point, I’ve had a lot!),” Anderson shares.  “And it’s good to have read so many classics.”  Reflecting on his undergraduate classes also had Anderson thinking about his involvement on campus as an Honors student.

In addition to being in the Honors Program, Anderson was vice president and then president of the Student Astronomical Society, as well as a member of the Society of Physics Students (SPS).  “I met my wife in SPS, so I definitely encourage Honors students to be involved in clubs!”  And even though they are scattered throughout the country, Anderson is still friends with a core group of guys he met in Honors Housing his first year on campus.  He’s happy that weddings have served as excuses for them to get together in the past few years.  Just as we, here at the Honors Program, are happy to have been able to catch up with Dr. Anderson!  If only he could figure out how to get an Honors t-shirt to Mars!