Profile with Bethany Ehlmann

Caltech/Lance Hayashida

Caltech/Lance Hayashida

Bethany L. Ehlmann (Missouri & Keble/Hertford 2004) is an Assistant Professor of Planetary Science at the California Institute of Technology and a Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  She was selected as a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.  Bethany holds a Ph.D. and Sc.M. in Geological Sciences from Brown University, an M.Sc. in Geography (Geomorphology) and an M.Sc. in Environmental Change & Management from the University of Oxford, and an A.B. in Earth & Planetary Sciences and Environmental Studies from Washington University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Bethany Ehlmann: Tallahassee, Florida is my hometown and is where I grew up, although a combination of training and work have taken me to a lot of other places in both the U.S. and Europe since then.  I’m looking forward to getting settled in Pasadena, California where I am now.

Rhodes Project: Did you find your Oxford experience intellectually fulfilling?  Was it what you were expecting?

Bethany Ehlmann: Yes, I found Oxford incredibly intellectually fulfilling, although perhaps not in the way I expected.  I definitely got a lot out of my course, in part because I tried to take the options within my Master’s program with which I was least familiar to intentionally stretch myself.  It took me into the social sciences and economics which was fascinating, but most of my intellectual engagement at Oxford was the conversations over dinners, teas, and drinks. Interacting with people at the top of their fields, especially when they were different from my own, I always felt like I was learning from my fellow students.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about planetary science?

Bethany Ehlmann: Growing up I was interested in science of all sorts, and particularly in exploration, whether that meant macheteing through the jungles of the Amazon, or deep sea diving, or going into outer space.  That was always what interested me as a little kid.  I think I really got bitten by the planetary science bug in my final year as an undergraduate at Washington University.  I had an opportunity to come out to the Jet Propulsion Lab and work with the team running the Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity”.  It was just an incredible experience to be able control something on another planet, to help set the direction for where we would go and what data would be taken.   I went to Oxford and studied Environmental Policy and Physical Geography, but I decided to ultimately get a Ph.D. in planetary geology – I had been bitten by that bug and wanted to get back to that excitement of exploration.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite past project?

Bethany Ehlmann: Aside from all of my amazing opportunities to work on Mars rovers, which were extraordinary experiences, another favourite was a shorter project in Iceland during my Ph.D.  My advisor and I were there to help out on another student’s project, but we took the opportunity to pick up some rocks from hydrothermally altered Iceland basalts. They ended up being quite appropriate analogues, chemically and mineralogy, to some materials which at that moment we were discovering on Mars from the orbital data.  It was fortuitous that this time out in the field, including a singular experience hunkering down a huge windstorm, really opened up our understanding of another planet intellectually.  I think that’s one of the amazing things about being a geologist – this interplay between data you collect in the laboratory, or from other planets, and then being able to go out into the rock record of Earth and testing out your understanding against that.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Bethany Ehlmann:  Planetary exploration is intellectually challenging and requires a high degree of science acumen, but I think the most challenging and also the most rewarding part of planetary science and exploration generally is the fact that you have to work and locate your science within large groups of teams.  In contrast to some scientific disciplines where there is one person working in their lab, perhaps with a small group of students, who can make really substantial process, getting new data in planetary science requires teams of engineers, and missions are usually composed of atmospheric scientists, geophysicists, geochemists, geobiologists, and several types of engineers. So communicating across and between disciplines about highly technical subjects, and then working together as part of large teams is one of the most challenging aspects.  There’s both the scientific element, and the human coordination element.

Rhodes Project: Can you describe a memorable teaching moment?

Bethany Ehlmann: In teaching remote sensing satellite image technology at Caltech this past term I was surprised to find it populated by more engineers than geologists – the course was Remote Sensing for Geological and Environmental Applications.  It was a challenge to figure out how to gear this course to this audience of electrical engineers who had never really picked up a rock and studied it, as opposed to geologists.  One of the most rewarding parts occurred at the end when we went on a field trip into the Mojave Desert to visit some areas where the students had been looking at remote sensing images.  It was great to see these students who had come from an engineering background really plug in and get how the remote sensing data was feeding into an understanding of landscape scale processes, tossing out all of these technical rock names that they hadn’t known before the start of the course as we hiked over boundaries between rocky areas and sediments.  I felt like we were fostering the communications between engineers and scientists at this small scale that are essential to space exploration.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you offer to a woman interested in a career in planetary science?

Bethany Ehlmann: I think my advice is universal for both young women and men: while in school, take all the technical courses that are relevant to what you think you might study. If you’re interested in planetary geology then expand a bit – take chemistry or some engineering courses because it really facilitates being able to work across disciplines and across teams.  I think it’s also important to seek out opportunities between terms – do an internship at a laboratory at another university, at a national space agency – whatever you can do to get involved with a team who is actually in the process of executing a mission, or looking at data coming back.  The field really is driven by those missions and it’s a different way of doing science than what’s learned in the classroom. 

Then there is also just perseverance; it’s a long road from undergraduate to PhD to postdoc to professor, and my greatest help there has been collecting around me a good group of professional, high-achieving friends who are also trying to do great things in their careers, whether science or journalism or law or business. Having them around to bounce ideas off of or to talk through issues you’re facing is really helpful in sustaining any young person along the path to becoming an established scientist.

Rhodes Project: What do you do outside of work to relax?

Bethany Ehlmann: I love to go hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains here behind Pasadena – anything outdoorsy.  I occasionally play a good game of ultimate Frisbee, softball or tennis.  My creative outlets are in cooking, good food and good wine, and lately also a little bit of dabbling in gardening in this hot, dry climate I live in.

Rhodes Project: If you had one super-power, what would it be and why?

Bethany Ehlmann: I would definitely have the super-power of teleportation, so that I could instantaneously teleport myself to anywhere in the solar system, or anywhere on our planet for that matter.  I would (in a spacesuit) teleport myself to Mars and take a look around, but I’d also love to be able to explore a few corners of the Earth that I haven’t had the chance to check out yet.  It’d be much more convenient than all of this air travel!

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