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Planetary scientist receives NASA’s Early Career Award

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IMAGE: Alicia Rutledge collects sediment and water samples at Collier Glacier in the Oregon Cascades view more 

Credit: Northern Arizona University

NASA has selected Northern Arizona University assistant research professor Alicia Rutledge as one of only five early-career scientists in the country to receive funding through its Planetary Science Early Career Award (ECA) program, which “supports outstanding early-career individuals and allows them to play an increasing role in the planetary science community.”

Rutledge’s proposal, “Ice, Ice, Rock: Analog Studies in Cold Environments to Understand Past Climate,” which was selected for an award of $200,000, outlined how the award would enable her to invest in a portable laboratory that she could use to better conduct her research.

“My research integrates remote sensing spacecraft data, field work and laboratory measurements to better understand planetary surface processes and the role of climate in alteration processes, and I am especially interested in using geochemistry and mineralogy to investigate cryosphere-bedrock interactions on Earth and Mars,” Rutledge said. “My work couples mineralogy with aqueous geochemistry in order to understand the composition and origin of weathering products at Mars analog field sites such as the Cascades Range in Oregon and Yellowstone National Park. I’m collaborating with NAU planetary scientist Mark Salvatore and an NAU student on a project studying the summit glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I’ve also recently been awarded a separate NASA grant to study glacial landforms in Iceland in collaboration with NAU planetary scientist Christopher Edwards. I especially look forward to working with NAU students at these sites.”

“In order to best study analogs in situ, however, I need a field-portable laboratory. Funding through NASA’s ECA program will allow me to invest in the equipment and supplies necessary to have a greater impact in the field of planetary science. Assembling my own field laboratory will enable me to more easily propose future field analog studies as well as educate students in how to conduct analog fieldwork.”

To ensure that NAU becomes a leader in planetary analog science, Rutledge will lead a strategic initiative to develop a field-portable geochemical and mineralogical laboratory, FieldLab, to complement the university’s existing remote sensing research and lab capabilities. Rutledge will use the funding in part to purchase new instruments, including a handheld visible/near-infrared spectrometer and a temperature/pH/dissolved oxygen multimeter to measure properties of rocks and waters in their natural settings. In addition to the investment in infrastructure and equipment, the funding will help train next-generation analog scientists and provide opportunities for professional development for both faculty and students.

“I will advance the state of planetary analog research to enhance the exploration of planetary bodies and understand the evolution and modification of surfaces within our Solar System,” Rutledge said, “with the goal of understanding past geologic processes by characterizing and understanding the mineralogical and physical features on planetary surfaces.”

The award will have a significant impact on her career. “It will help me push the boundaries of planetary analog cold-climate alteration studies. I am especially excited that NASA has recognized me with this award. It means a lot to me on a personal level, especially as a Latina scientist and first-generation Ph.D.”

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Rutledge is a team member of the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) mission aboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey.

About Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University is a higher-research institution providing exceptional educational opportunities in Arizona and beyond. NAU delivers a student-centered experience to its nearly 30,000 students in Flagstaff, statewide and online through rigorous academic programs in a supportive, inclusive and diverse environment. Dedicated, world-renowned faculty help ensure students achieve academic excellence, experience personal growth, have meaningful research opportunities and are positioned for personal and professional success.

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