Three NAU graduate students awarded NASA’s prestigious FINESST grants

Ty Robinson sits at his desk.

Three Ph.D. students in Northern Arizona University’s Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science have been awarded grants through the Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) program. The funding—up to $135,000 total per student for up to three years—supports graduate student-designed research projects that help further NASA’s Science Mission Directorate interests in Earth sciences, heliophysics, planetary science and astrophysics.

Anthony Maue, who is in his fourth year of NAU’s Ph.D. program in astronomy and planetary science; Ari Koeppel, who recently finished his second year; and Anna Engle, who is just beginning her second year, each received a grant.

“There were only 34 proposals selected nationally out of hundreds submitted for the awards this year. With our three, that’s 9 percent from NAU,” said professor David Trilling, who leads the Ph.D. program. “It is pretty rare for any institution ever to be triply selected, and NAU tied with the University of Arizona for the highest number of selections in the country.”

Trilling attributed the students’ success in receiving the awards to the quality of the proposals they submitted, as well as to assistant professor Tyler Robinson, who teaches a seminar series for graduate students about fellowship and proposal writing.

“The course begins with understanding the difference between scientific writing, which is very succinct and non-emotional, and proposal writing, which is more of a sales pitch to an audience that could give you money,” Robinson said.

Students learn what a granting agency wants to fund and how to make key elements of an application stand out. They also receive feedback on their draft proposals.

“We run mock funding panels and pretend we are applicant reviewers to get in that mindset,” said Robinson, who has served on NASA funding panels in the past and created the seminar for NAU. He is offering the seminar for the fourth time this fall.

Interpreting radar signals to better understand images of Titan

“Being a future investigator under the FINESST program is an honor and provides a confidence boost in my ability to secure grants and continue to fund my research in this field,” Maue said. His project, “Seeking Sediment Signals in SAR: Enhancing Interpretations of Cassini Radar for Titan,” studies the relationship between sediment properties and their radar signals on Earth to better understand images of Saturn’s moon, Titan.

“Radar images from NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission revealed sedimentary features like rivers, dunes and alluvial fans. The brightness of the radar signal for these features is thought to be partly dependent on characteristics of sand and pebbles at the surface,” Maue said. “Since numerical models indicate the radar brightness may correlate with sediment size, shape and composition, I plan to test how such factors influence the radar signal for similar sedimentary features on Earth. We already have field data collected at Death Valley National Park and I hope to return to collect more data this fall.”

Simulating satellite data with UAVs on Earth to study sediments on Mars

Koeppel’s project is titled, “Identifying the Thermophysical Signatures of Weathering in Mars Analog Deposits.”

“I am interested in what sediments on Mars can tell us about ancient environments there, such as how wet they were, how different or similar they were to what we see on Earth and whether they hosted life,” Koeppel said. “Except for the few tiny regions where we’ve sent rovers and landers, we generally use satellite observations of Mars’ surface to get information about the properties of rocks and landforms. However, one of the major hurdles in interpreting data from satellite images is that we don’t always know what certain patterns mean, because we’ve never been able to see what they look like on the ground.”

To help solve this problem as it applies to thermal infrared imagery, he will be using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to simulate satellite data at three sites on Earth that are similar geologically to the surface of Mars: The San Francisco Volcanic Field in northern Arizona, Kilauea volcano in Hawai’i and Öræfajökull volcano in Iceland.

Using Raman spectroscopy to explore lakes on Saturn’s largest moon

Engle’s project, “Experimental Studies to Determine the Impact of Propane, Ethylene, and Acetylene in and Around Titan’s Lakes,” seeks to explore Saturn’s largest moon, the only body in the solar system aside from Earth with stable liquid on its surface.

“Although the Cassini-Huygens mission has provided invaluable insight into the lakes and seas at Titan’s poles, much is left to be explored,” she said. “The lakes are mostly composed of methane, ethane and nitrogen, but it is expected that other hydrocarbons reside in them as well. My research aims to use Raman spectroscopy in the lab to better understand the quantity in which propane, ethylene and acetylene might be found in the lakes as well as the possible implications to the immediate surrounding environments.”

Trilling congratulated the students as well as their advisers: Christopher Edwards, Stephen Tegler, Devon Burr and Gerrick Lindberg at NAU, along with Jennifer Hanley of Lowell Observatory.

“NAU was competing against some huge names in planetary science research for these FINESST grants,” Robinsonsaid. “Winning these three awards is a wonderful indication that planetary science research at NAU is on track to lead the field.”