With a new school year in progress, former area resident Nicole Spanovich, whose love of astronomy as a child set her on course for a career in NASA rover missions, including the newly Mars-landed Curiosity, has some advice for students.
Follow your interests.
Tackle math and science.
And don't wait to be found.
Spanovich embraced all four schools of thought that, combined with early-on encouragement from her parents, rocketed her interests into an income, not to mention "out-of-this-world" on-the-job fulfillment.
Since 2005 Spanovich has been a systems engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology. JPL manages the rover mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, is a federally funded research and development center and is the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system.
But since November, Spanovich's specific project title has been science operations team chief for the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars Aug. 5 and whose two-year mission is to determine the Red Planet's "habitability," whether it could have ever hosted life.
"I have a very large distributed team - the science team on MSL is about 400 people - so I am responsible for the process and procedures the science team will follow when supporting the operations for Curiosity," she said. "They are from all over the world. We have a very international team, which makes it very exciting," she said.
The days since Curiosity had its "odds-defying, acrobatic landing," according to an Associated Press story, Spanovich said the daily attention and emphasis have been concentrated on checking out the rover. "It was a long trip and intense descent to the surface so we're checking out all the pieces of rover to see that they're still functioning the way we expect them to function so every day we have a different plan on what pieces we will check," Spanovich said.
Looking at data received from the rover is another facet of the job. "We figure out based on the data what we want the rover to do the next day and how to actually make that happen," she said of an ongoing process that involves meetings, masterminding logistics of a spread-all-over team, defining instructions and facilitating communication so ultimately the rover gets instructions to know what to do next.
"And we're doing this all on Mars time," Spanovich said, with sol being a Martian day, about 40 minutes longer than a 24-hour Earth day.
Spanovich, 30, is the daughter of Nick and Elizabeth Hays Spanovich, both of whom are Wintersville High School graduates. Elizabeth graduated in 1980, Nick in 1978. They live now in Sun West City, Ariz., both retired. Her father was in the trucking industry, her mother a postmaster.
"I was born in Steubenville but did not live there for many years," Spanovich said. The family moved to Fairlawn, Ohio, when she was just a toddler and lived there until she was 11. Then the family relocated to Mesa, Ariz., where Spanovich attended junior high, high school and then college.
Even so, Spanovich said she spent many summers in the area visiting relatives - maternal grandparents Bunny Hays of Wintersville and the late Jim Hays, and paternal grandparents Sam and Marty Spanovich of Steubenville - in addition to many other family members in the Steubenville-Wintersville area.
Astronomy, science and space exploration captured Spanovich's attention at an early age.
"Even when I was little and didn't understand, I was fascinated with stars and had little books on constellations," she said, envisioning herself an astronaut some day.
Spanovich said her parents encouraged her interests, bought her a telescope and later supported her plans to study astronomy at the Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff after graduating from high school in 2000.
"I knew I made the right choice," said Spanovich, who later transferred to the University of Arizona in Tuscon, keeping astronomy as her major and defining her minor as planetary sciences.
A pivotal moment came during her junior year when she decided to quit jobs she had while attending classes and focus instead on work within her field. She boldly asked for a job after hearing a presentation by a Mars Exploration Rover participating scientist, who said he had money for students researchers.
Spanovich wanted to get hands-on experience by working on a real space mission.
Her don't-wait-to-be-found approach paid off, as she distinguished herself as among the few undergraduates to work on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) robotic space mission involving two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, exploring the Martian surface and geology.
Immersed in mission operations for eight months at JPL, Spanovich returned to finish school, graduating in May 2005. During that time, however, she ran a remote operations center for NASA's MER mission in Tucson.
With JPL contacts at hand, Spanovich's graduation brought instant opportunity in a familiar setting with familiar projects.
"What was great is that they hired me, and I was working on the same stuff," Spanovich said.
Spanovich is never at a loss for someone to talk shop with. Her husband, Kyran Owen-Mankovich, is a software systems engineer at JPL.
"When the rover sends back data, it has to be processed, and his expertise is processing the data for the end user, in this case the scientists," Spanovich said of her husband's area of expertise. "We are not in the same building. We do not overlap that much at work and what we do is so different," she said. "We have a good understanding of what the other does."
While science and engineering remain a male-dominated field, Spanovich said the Curiosity mission boasts "quite a lot of females.
"I really hope that trend continues," she said.
She hopes, too, that space exploration dollars continue as well - money that she said really represents a small part of the overall budget.
"There is still so much to learn in space exploration," Spanovich said, pointing out that NASA's public outreach effort does a great job of using social media to engage the public in the missions undertaken.
"I am so fortunate to be doing this job that I love. I really encourage the young men and women in school to work hard, follow their interests and get support. You really have to go after what you want."
(Kiaski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)