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Rock star: Nina Lanza’s geology expertise advances the search for signs of life on Mars

The Frontiers in Science series, sponsored by the Lab’s Fellows, has gone virtual
October 1, 2020
Nina Lanza

Nina Lanza had her inner space nerd first awakened at age 7.

What can desert rocks tell us about life on the red planet? Learn about Los Alamos National Laboratory’s contribution to NASA’s Mars 2020 mission and how the Perseverance Rover will use lasers to gather new clues when it lands on Mars in February 2021.

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, Nina Lanza, planetary scientist and team lead for Space and Planetary Exploration, will be interviewed from the new Bradbury Science Museum studio. “NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover: Looking for Signs of Past Life,” 6­­–7:30 p.m., is part of the Frontiers in Science series sponsored by the Lab’s Fellows.

Nina’s work has been featured in Scientific American, the television series “How the Universe Works” and on the new podcast, “Mars Technica.”

The event is free and for all ages. Register here. Bring your questions for Nina, or email them in advance to fafrid@lanl.gov.

Nina Lanza
WATCH: Get a flavor for Nina’s energetic personality, plus a little background on an important rover instrument and rock varnish. 2:09 mins.

Where Nina got her spark

With a focus on Martian geology, Nina began at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a post-baccalaureate student and continued at the Lab as a graduate student and postdoc before becoming staff in 2014. She received her doctorate in Earth and Planetary Sciences from the University of New Mexico, after studying astronomy (Smith College) and earth and environmental sciences (Wesleyan University).

But where did her inner space nerd first get awakened? At a night sky public event long ago!

“I think I can always point to this one event that really crystallized it for me. My parents took me to an outreach event in Boston, Massachusetts, where I'm from. This was when Halley's Comet was coming around and so they took me to an open observing night,” Nina shared in a recent podcast.

“I was about 7 years old at the time, so I didn't really pay attention to the pre-observing lecture … but then we went up onto the roof and we looked through the telescope, and I was shocked. There was this thing out there and I realized that the sky wasn't a dome; that there's actually space. It’s just three-dimensional space out there filled with things — and we don't even know what's out there — and that just made me realize what I want to spend the rest of my life studying. I want to learn what's out there.”

Nina noted the importance of STEM events — and the educators and volunteers who make these kinds of moments possible.

“It really shows you, don't underestimate the power that your words have on young people. You never know who you're going to speak to who's going to really take that to heart. I don't know who that volunteer was who was leading this public outreach night. He or she probably has no idea that this happened, but it's because of that person that this experience sort of launched this journey for me.”