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Building Star Students

In the realm of interplanetary research, Nadine Barlow is a star. She has established several research partnerships with NASA, both through her own grants and as director of the Northern Arizona University Space Grant program, that have given her access to cutting-edge data from exploratory missions to Mars. Barlow has also established herself as one of the top Mars scholars in the world, and literally wrote the book on the Red Planet: 2008’s Mars: An Introduction to its Interior, Surface and Atmosphere.

Barlow's expertise also pays large dividends in the classroom. As a professor of physics and astronomy, her undergraduate students have access to the same NASA resources that she does, which she says could provide big opportunities for them down the road.

"This is real-world data that nobody else has looked at, which ­means that students can actually make new contributions [to understanding more about Mars]," she says. "Depending on the results of their research, students often become co-authors on published papers and have the opportunity to present their work at professional conferences, which looks good for them on graduate school applications. Plus, a lot of the skills that [students] develop, in terms of utilizing software and analyzing data, are the same types of skills that many companies are looking for in their employees."

A commitment to students

This commitment to student success was one of the factors that drew Barlow to Flagstaff. When she arrived in 2002, she was already well on her way to establishing herself as a prominent planetary science researcher. The university's commitment to undergraduate research resonated strongly with her own beliefs, which culminated in winning the 2011 Northern Arizona University Research and Creative Activity Award for Most Effective Research Mentor.

"I really like the combination of teaching and emphasis on research [at the university]," she says. "When I heard about the physics and astronomy program, and its focus on involving undergraduates in research opportunities, I thought, 'That's the place for me.'"

Mars observer

Barlow has also worked hard outside the classroom to facilitate partnerships both within and outside of academia. As one of the co-founders of the Planetary Crater Consortium, Barlow works with fellow researchers from around the globe to advance Mars-related knowledge. The Consortium brings together researchers from government agencies, research institutions, and academia to discuss the potential value of crater data from exploratory missions throughout our solar system. Seemingly dry data related to Martian craters, she says, could one day provide profound information about our own planet's evolution.

"[After examining Mars crater data], we started to realize that Mars at one time was very Earth-like," Barlow says. "It had a lot of liquid water on the surface at one time, yet is very dry today. We'd like to know what happened to Mars. It could help us to know whether something similar could happen to the Earth and, if so, whether we could prevent it."

Barlow remains committed to giving undergraduate students opportunities to work with real-world technology and the latest NASA feedback from Mars. However, her primary teaching goals will always be much larger than just exposing students to interesting new data sets.

"What I really try to get across is not so much memorization of facts and figures, but how to develop critical thinking skills," she says. "I try to get [students] thinking about how to apply existing knowledge to new situations, and I try to give them these opportunities for hands-on learning. My goal is always to involve the students."