A rock formation with a night sky and shooting star behind it.

The stars. The planets. The universe … geology?

For Alexandra Davatzes ’99, Anjani Polit ’03, Laura Kerber ’06 and Debra Needham ’07, majoring in geology at Pomona College provided solid ground for careers in space exploration and NASA missions.

So how does a student of geology find her way into deep space? Professor of Geology Eric Grosfils might have something to do with it. His Intro to Geology: Planetary Geology course gives undergrads a chance to begin acquiring the fundamentals they need.

Grosfils says that the study of other planets is very valuable as scientists strive to better understand our own. “With so many missions running throughout the solar system, the opportunities for students to get involved learning about the wonders of the solar system—and through those explorations about our home planet—have never been better,” he says.

“The students who ‘get the bug’ here [at Pomona] go on to do some amazing research, and many are now helping to lead the way in their respective fields. It’s truly inspiring to see everything they are accomplishing.”

Headshot of Debra Needham.

Debra Needham '07

DEBRA NEEDHAM ’07

Needham works for the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where she is a research associate in planetary science. She is primarily a scientist studying surface processes (such as eruption and lava flow dynamics) on the planets Venus, Earth, Mars and the moon. She also serves as a science advisor for a team of engineers tasked with integrating payloads/spacecraft onto NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, and as a subject matter expert for science for engineering teams designing the next deep space habitats for astronauts.

Early on, Needham knew she wanted to pursue geology, thanks to a high school class that introduced her to the subject through field trips and dynamic lessons.

Her first class at Pomona, taught by Grosfils, introduced her to planetary geology, which “resonated with my childhood passion for astronomy and my newfound interest in geology, and I was instantly hooked,” she says.

Needham did research and worked for Grosfils while at Pomona and did a summer internship at the Lunar & Planetary Institute – where Grosfils himself was an intern in 1989. In addition, she co-authored a U.S. Geological Survey planetary map.

She fondly recalls the department’s supportive environment – including the weekly “Liquidus” events – where faculty and students would gather over cheese, crackers, fruit and lemonade to “chat about college life, current events or last weekend’s field trip.”

Of the hands-on nature of geology at Pomona, she says, “The time I spent outside of the classroom on laboratory assignments and field excursions honed my ability to deduce the life story of minerals, rocks, outcrops, and mountains in our backyard and farther afield.  Now, I use these skills to interpret data collected from orbit around other planetary bodies like the moon, Mars, Venus, and beyond and to determine how those planets evolved over their histories.”

Going off to Brown University, Needham received her M.S. and Ph.D., and has since had opportunities to do the research and work she enjoys, taking her to places like Hawaii and Iceland.

Needham wants budding geologists to also look at chemistry, physics, biology and math. “Having a familiarity with these other subjects is greatly beneficial to the study of geology and will help narrow your focus to a relevant topic of study later in your career.”

Headshot of Laura Kerber

Laura Kerber '06

LAURA KERBER ‘06

Kerber is a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for NASA in Pasadena, Calif., where she spends about 70 percent of her time on pure research on the moon, Mars and a bit on Mercury, and about 30 percent on future mission planning. 

Specifically, Kerber’s research interests range from physical volcanology, wind over complex surfaces and ancient Martian climate.

“I’m embedded with a team of engineers and we discuss future missions and what science questions we are going to answer, what measurements and instruments we have to make, etc.”

Kerber came to Pomona as an undecided student who was interested in several different sciences, including biology, astronomy and physics.

Geology, she says, was the perfect combination for someone like her who loves science and the outdoors: “You could be a scientist but also go camping.”

She recalls, “I went on a midnight waterfall hike with a bunch of random students and I met a guy who was going to Hawaii and Mexico for research,” she says and remembers asking him what his major was. His answer: geology.

Interested in both deep space astronomy and geology, Kerber found that Grosfils’ Intro to Geology: Planetary Geology course showed how you could combine both interests. After Pomona, Kerber headed to Brown University where she received two master’s in science degrees, one in geological sciences and the second in engineering (fluid mechanics), and a Ph.D. in geological sciences.

Her advice to budding geologists: “To not completely focus on one thing. I was in the Physics Department a lot and doing math and doing geology. Geology is kind of overarching, you can be a geochemist or geophysicist, with a strong background in a fundamental field like math or physics that can be applied to geology. Don’t limit yourself, if you find other classes, bring them in and apply them to your geology major.”

Headshot of Anjani Polit.

Anjani Polit '03

Anjani Polit ’03

Polit is the mission implementation systems engineer on the OSIRIS-REx project at the University of Arizona, an asteroid sample return mission. Polit helps support the principal deputy investigator, specifically helping with planning and checking off on each requirement to ensure the mission is a success. Previously, Polit was the Uplink Lead for the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, also at the University of Arizona.

“My background in geology and in planetary geology [from Pomona] really helped me be a more effective operator of the camera. It gave me the background knowledge to understand why scientists were targeting a certain area, which helped me work with them to optimize and get the best science return,” she says.

As a student at Pomona, Polit happened upon Grosfils’ Intro to Geology: Planetary Geology class while perusing the course catalogue.  Before she knew it, she was majoring in geology, where she found a close and caring department, from Academic Coordinator Lori Keala to the professors.

She also recalls one of her first research opportunities: working with Grosfils one summer, mapping shield volcanoes on Venus: “That was my introduction to research and the following summer, I again very luckily got the opportunity to work with Eric and a collaborator of his for two months at the Goddard Space Flight Center on a Mars research project.”

As a student, Polit attended the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, (jointly sponsored by the Lunar and Planetary Institute and NASA Johnson Space Center), where she met a colleague of Grosfils who provided her with career and research advice and also offered her a research assistantship at the University of Nevada, Reno. After Pomona, Polit went on to receive a master’s in geological engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno.

“It really is all through the experience and opportunities that I got while at Pomona that launched me into this trajectory and into this career.”

Alexandra Davatzes

Alexandra Davatzes '99

Alexandra Davatzes ’99

Davatzes, an associate professor of earth and environmental science at Temple University, worked on targeting, analysis of fluvial and hydrothermal systems, and education and public outreach for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) mission based at the NASA Ames Research Center, during graduate school and as a NASA postdoctoral fellow.

She discovered her interest in geology in high school after taking an oceanography class which she first thought was part of marine biology. When she came to Pomona she was undecided between biology and geology until she took a class with Emeritus Professor Rick Hazlett and saw the support students got from faculty and staff. In addition, she says the field trips and research opportunities played a huge role in helping students bond on camping trips.

As a sophomore, Davatzes spent a summer doing planetary research with Grosfils and Professor Linda Reinen on Venus and Mars at Washington and Lee University through the Keck Geology Consortium. “That summer I made many good friends, many of which I still talk to and see at conferences today,” she recalls.

“It was a particularly exciting year, as Pathfinder landed on Mars while we were all together, and we all watched the NASA feed, and cheered with its success.  It was really the start of the resurgence of the Mars Exploration program.  I remember at the time that many of us chose to do research on Venus because the data were so much better than Mars — hard to believe now.” 

 After Pomona, Davatzes pursued a Ph.D. at Stanford University where she did research on Earth’s early environment, studying 3.5 billion-year-old rocks found in Barberton, South Africa. 

Currently, Davatzes’ research focuses primarily on the role of large meteor impacts on early Earth  and a separate project researching spatial thinking in students and developing ways to enhance spatial learning in the classroom. 

Her advice for students interested in careers in the field is to “take more math.”

She also recommends that students take advantage of opportunities to go into the field.  “Planetary scientists and geologists with a stronger understanding of how the processes work on Earth are much more successful; and the more you see, the more open your mind is to possible analogs.”