Editors’ Vox is a blog from AGU’s Publications Department.
Dr. Jessica Watkins is a NASA astronaut, planetary geologist, and lead author of a recent manuscript accepted for publication in JGR: Planets, entitled “Burial and exhumation of sedimentary rocks revealed by the base Stimson erosional unconformity, Gale crater, Mars”. Dr. Watkins recently arrived at the International Space Station as part of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 and is serving as a Mission Specialist on the mission that will last around 6 months. We recently spoke with Dr. Watkins about her career path and the path to publication in JGR: Planets.
What first interested you in geology, and led you to choose to complete a Ph.D. in geology?
As an undergraduate at Stanford University, I was originally a mechanical engineering major, but during my sophomore year I realized that I just wasn’t passionate about the subject. I started looking at other course offerings in the sciences, some of which had intriguing titles such as “What Makes a Habitable Planet?” and “Planetary Materials”. So, I signed up for my first geology course and quickly became hooked. I distinctly remember being captivated by a lecture on the process of planetary accretion and deciding then that I wanted to be a planetary geologist.
What led to your interest in studying landslides on Mars during your Ph.D, and what other Mars-related research have you done?
Mars is Earth-like in many ways, and I found it fascinating that we could study Earth processes and landforms to better understand those observed on Mars (and vice versa!). My Ph.D. research focused on investigating the mechanisms that led to long run-out distances associated with both Martian and terrestrial landslides, such as material properties and the role of water at the time they formed. I went on to continue studying Mars’ geological processes as a post-doctoral student at California Institute of Technology, where I utilized data from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission to help characterize the sedimentary depositional history at Gale crater.
Could you describe the major findings from your recent manuscript that is now in-press at the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, and the significance?
This paper describes the discovery of an unconformity in a sequence of sedimentary rocks on Mars. An unconformity represents a discontinuity in the time of deposition between sequences of rocks. In this case, it separates the rocks which record a time in which a lake was present at Gale crater, and an overlying sequence of rocks which record a time when the climate was much drier leading to the formation of eolian sand dunes. The unconformity is significant in that it records not only the transition between environmental regimes, but also substantial erosion of the older (lacustrine) rocks before the younger (eolian) rocks were deposited.
I understand that there was a significant delay between when the paper was first submitted and the time to acceptance. Can you share your story about the path to publication?
Well, the paper was first submitted back in 2017, but prior to that, I had applied to become a member of NASA’s astronaut corps. Shortly after the paper was returned to us by the journal editor with reviewer comments, I was selected by NASA and unable to complete the revisions before reporting for duty as an Astronaut Candidate. However, after a few years of focusing on training, I was able to return to it with the help of my co-authors, and the final manuscript was accepted for publication at about the time I launched as part of Crew-4.
Do you have any advice to offer to younger students who are interested in geology, planetary science, and/or space exploration?
My advice would be to find a subject that excites you, and don’t be afraid to proactively pursue it. Look for opportunities to continue to learn and explore- internships are a great way to help you narrow down your career interests and gain valuable experience. Finally, seek out supportive mentors who can be sources of encouragement and help you navigate your way toward your goals.
—Dr. Jessica Watkins (Jessica.firstname.lastname@example.org,