Through her middle school years, Kirsten Siebach, from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Oakton, Va., was excited about drama and sports.
Then, after acceptance into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, she pursued a rigorous curriculum that involved, among other courses, computer science, optics, genetics and neurobiology. Suddenly, science took center stage.
Siebach applied for an internship at the Naval Research Laboratory in the D.C. area in the summer following her junior year, and, over the next two summers, learned the rudiments of materials science. As a teenager, she synthesized the chemical compound yttrium oxide, no small feat.
That was just the beginning for Siebach, who will graduate May 20 with a double major in earth and planetary sciences and chemistry and a minor in English, all in Arts & Sciences.
Within a year of starting classes at WUSTL, Siebach found herself immersed in the drama of her life. At 19, she became the youngest member of the Phoenix Mars Lander science team in Tucson, Ariz., largely because of a brochure that arrived in the family mailbox the previous fall.
It described the university’s Pathfinder program, a unique, challenging curriculum that integrates numerous disciplines allowing a small group of students the chance to engage in interactive study of the environment.
Through case studies and field trips, students examine the issues surrounding environmental sustainability and the preservation of the environment for future generations.
Raymond E. Arvidson, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, is the major architect of Pathfinder, and became Siebach’s adviser.
“In applying to undergraduate schools, I found nothing like Pathfinder,” Siebach says. “The idea that I could do field work as an undergraduate was very appealing. I was looking for a place where undergraduates could get involved, and talking to Ray at Discovery Weekend my senior year and meeting a few of the Pathfinder students sold me.”
Pathfinder students take Arvidson’s Land Dynamics class first semester freshman year. It prepares them for field work and analysis for case studies in the Mojave Desert and Hawaii’s Big Island. Students learn how to use computer programs for modeling and image processing in planetary science scenarios.
In addition to taking Arvidson’s class, Siebach worked for him examining Mars rover data. Despite her youth, Arvidson thought Siebach’s skills were a match for a documentarian position open for NASA’s Phoenix Lander mission, with landing operations set for May 2008.
The NASA work was, well, dramatic.
“It was exploratory planetary science happening in real-time,” she says. “Exciting and fun, but so important, too.”
Among her roles as a team member were analyzing robotic arm forces to determine soil properties and serving as a daily uplink documentarian for Lander plans. Eventually, she became strategic planner, all highly critical activities.
“The team thought that she was a graduate student, given her ability to absorb information rapidly and maintain her cool while putting a plan together in time to meet the uplink window through the NASA Deep Space Network,” Arvidson says. “Kirsten is simply terrific, a natural leader, both intellectually and socially. She will be equally outstanding as she pursues graduate studies.”
She will begin doctoral research in earth and planetary sciences at California Institute of Technology this fall.
Her Pathfinder capstone honors thesis involved remote sensing of White Sands National Monument, where she analyzed a transect across the gypsum dunes using spectroscopy to look at different textures. Also, during the summer of 2009, she commuted from her Virginia home to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to work as a documentarian for the Mars rover missions.
Siebach has loved her four years at WUSTL, counting Forest Park and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences faculty and staff and science outreach activities as among her favorites. “I love reaching kids about the excitement of science and planetary missions,” she says.