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. Thanks in part to her work with NASA, Barlow has also established herself as one of the top Mars scholars in the world: in fact, she has literally written the book about the Red Planet, having recently published Mars: An Introduction to its Interior, Surface and Atmosphere. But Barlow's expertise pays large dividends in another key area: as an associate professor in physics and astronomy, her undergraduate students have access to the same NASA resources that she does. And, she says, this could mean big things 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, of course, 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."
This commitment to student success was one of the key factors that drew Barlow to Flagstaff. Upon her arrival in 2002, she was already well on the way to establishing herself as a prominent planetary science researcher. The university's commitment to undergraduate research, she says, resonated strongly with her own beliefs.
"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.'"
As a professor, Barlow has also worked hard outside the classroom to facilitate partnerships aimed at achieving impacts both within and outside of academia. In terms of advancing knowledge related to Mars, Barlow works with fellow researchers from around the globe. For example, she is one of the co-founders of the Mars Crater Consortium, which brings together researchers from government agencies, research institutions, and academia to discuss the potential value of crater data from Mars exploratory missions. 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 start 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."
Going forward, Barlow remains committed to giving undergraduate students opportunities to work with real-world technology and the latest NASA feedback from Mars. She says, however, that 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 lots of opportunities for hands-on learning. My goal is always to involve the students."