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College of Science and Mathematics

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Math Major Celebrates Curiosity Landing, Does Research at NASA's JPL

October 26, 2012

Jenna Murphy at JPL
 Jenna Murphy at JPL.

SAN LUIS OBISPO — For senior math major Jenna Murphy, Mars came a little closer this August when the Curiosity rover touched down. Murphy spent the summer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where the rover was developed, as part of the STEM Teacher and Researcher (STAR) Program.

Though Murphy didn't work on the Mars Science Lab, the mission that includes Curiosity, she worked alongside scientists who were directly involved. She also got to experience the landing celebration close-up. At the convention center in Pasadena, Murphy watched the rover's progress with a number of people who had worked closely on the mission.

Murphy's research at JPL related to a future Mars mission that's at least a decade away — putting a rocket on the surface of Mars to collect and bring back samples. Murphy worked specifically on developing a container to hold and preserve the samples during space flight and the trip through Earth's atmosphere. Curiosity will collect and analyze samples but will not return to Earth.The first picture Curiosity beamed back showed a wheel. "A guy I was talking to said, 'Oh I worked on that wheel,'" Murphy said. "It was really, really cool that I got to meet people who worked so closely on the project."

Living through a successful landing while working on a future mission piqued Murphy's curiosity about what will come next in Mars exploration. "There were a lot of ideas being traded around for the future," she said.

Murphy found that her Cal Poly math major served her well at JPL. "Math is very good for problem solving, for figuring out how to create a plan of attack for the job you're going to do," Murphy said.

Working on real-life research helped Murphy decide that she wants to pursue a master's degree in aeronautics or engineering. "It was really inspiring to meet so many people working towards the goal of understanding science. It would be my dream to work at NASA," she said.

Murphy plans to join Cal Poly's Cubesat program, in which students build small satellites that perform scientific research and test new technologies in space.


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