Tanya Harrison talks Mars' geology and harassment in STEM

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Sep 3, 2019, 7:36 AM EDT (Updated)

Today I want you to meet Tanya Harrison, who is a planetary geologist doing excellent work with Mars. She didn’t come by that path in the most straightforward of ways, though, and that’s just one of the things she discusses in our interview. Tanya was kind enough to talk to me about her circuitous career journey, harassment she's experienced as a woman in STEM, and the joy of being paid to look at Mars every day.


 You juggle so many roles professionally. Can you tell me about them?

I wear a lot of hats. My “prime” gig is as Director of Research at Arizona State University’s Space Science and Technology Initiative—known short-handedly as “ASU NewSpace.” We work to build partnerships between ASU and commercial space companies to work together on instrument development, mission design, tech development, you name it. I also spent a chunk of my research time as a martian geomorphologist. That’s a fancy way of saying that I look at the shapes of features on Mars’ surface and put together how they formed.

Outside of ASU, I’m also a Web Editor for The Planetary Society, which means I handle a lot of back-end stuff of the website that you’ll never know was me. :)

I also run two small businesses: Tanya Harrison Photography, which was been going strong since 2011. The other is a Toronto subway-themed line of merchandise that combines my love for photography with my love of Toronto and public transit. That company is called Station, which is run out of Toronto.

 How did you get to where you are professionally? What was your path to becoming a geologist?

It was a somewhat circuitous path. I started my undergrad at the University of Washington (UW) as a dual major in astronomy and physics. In my teenage brain, I thought, “Planets are in space, so I should be an astronomer!” It wasn’t until a couple of years in, though, that I realized I should’ve been a geologist if I wanted to study Mars. So my initial astronomical career was very heavily based on stellar spectroscopy—looking at squiggly lines from light absorbed and/or emitted from stars to figure out what chemicals the stars are made of. It was cool, but not Mars.

There were some Mars researchers at UW in the Earth and Space Sciences department, so I approached them and got in on some studies of martian glacial processes. This led me to change gears and apply to geology graduate programs. I officially made the switch to geology—and the Mars for good!—for my master’s degree at Wesleyan University.

Being a women in STEM isn’t easy. Can you speak a little to your own experiences?

 In one of my first jobs in the field, I experienced harassment of the hostile workplace environment type from a male superior. It was incredibly stressful and demoralizing to the point that I nearly left the left entirely—but I loved Mars so much that I hung on as long as I could, until I decided it wasn’t worth being treated the way I was just to work on Mars missions. So I left and decided to get a Ph.D.

Sadly in the ordeal with harassment, I didn't get any help from women in my company—even from those in positions that should have done something about it when I reported it. Fighting for gender pay equality was also an issue at that place. I do credit one of my closest female friends for helping me develop the courage to stand up for myself and realize that I didn’t deserve to be treated so poorly. That ended up being a valuable experience, albeit painful, because it taught me what I should and shouldn’t have to put up with. Now I evangelize about that, particularly to grad students who are being treated poorly or unfairly by their supervisors or universities.    

 What is your current Mars research focused on?

 My main area of research for the past decade when it comes to Mars is looking at a particular type of landform called a “gully.” These are small channels on slopes in the mid-latitudes that appear to have been carved by water in some fashion in geologically recent times—tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years old. They’re quite a conundrum when it comes to Mars though, because the surface temperature and pressure hasn’t been conducive to sustaining liquid water anytime recently. So, how do you get such youthful features that look like they were carved by water? I’ve been trying to answer this question using a bunch of different approaches. I look at their shapes, where they are on the planet, and how they relate to other features of Mars’ surface and subsurface, as well as looking at past climate conditions to see how they could have formed.

Since I spent many years on the targeting team for the Context Camera (CTX) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, I got to look at the entire planet every single day at relatively high resolution. Oftentimes I was the first human to see a particular image, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only human to have looked at EVERY image CTX has ever taken. From this, I ended up doing research on a lot of different surface features on Mars, ranging from impact craters to volcanology to glacial/periglacial processes to fluvial processes ... basically anything cool that I came across and could figure out!

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I love that I basically get paid to look at Mars every day. How cool is that?!

Do you have any advice for young women who are interested in becoming planetary scientists or working in STEM fields more generally?

The biggest thing I tell people is to be proactive. Discover what your specific interests are in the field, and then seek out people and opportunities in that area. Social media makes that so much easier than even when I was a teenager or undergrad! Tweet at people, e-mail them to ask questions. If you’re a high school student or undergrad, don’t be afraid to reach out and see if professors (or companies) in your area of interest are looking for summer interns. Ask professors working on the stuff that interests you if/when they’re accepting students. Being proactive helps you stand out among the crowd.

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