Stonehill Student Fulfilling Childhood Dream of Working For NASA

April 16, 2015

Ashley Horan, a Clare Boothe Luce Undergraduate Scholar at Stonehill College (Easton, MA), is fulfilling her childhood dream to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A physics major and mathematics minor from Brick Township, NJ, Horan has taken advantage of the many academic and research opportunities available to her at Stonehill, as well as sought out opportunities of her own—demonstrating an exemplary commitment to scholarship that is at the core of the Clare Boothe Luce Undergraduate Scholarship program.

At a young age, Horan developed a love for science and a desire to work for NASA. She arrived at Stonehill in the fall of 2011 and quickly set to work on a course of study that would allow her to achieve this goal. During her sophomore and junior years at Stonehill, Horan conducted independent theoretical research with Stonehill Associate Professor of Physics Alessandro Massarotti to study liquid flow through the Earth’s mantle.

During the spring of 2014, Horan shifted her focus to experimental research efforts with Harvard University Lecturer and SAO Astrophysicist Dave Latham to search for a third companion in the Sirius binary system. With her strong academic performance and robust resume of research experiences, Horan applied and was accepted to a summer internship at NASA.

She spent the summer of 2014 at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, where she worked with Dr. Conor Nixon and Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman to model the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. Horan developed and proposed model atmospheres for potential exoplanets and then tested those atmospheres—making minor modifications in the parameters to determine their level of importance.

Horan’s intellectual curiosity is evident as she speaks about her research at NASA: “I definitely grappled with certain aspects of my research during my summer at NASA. I reached a point where I couldn’t justify exploring the atmospheres of potential exoplanets when I wanted to know more about the atmospheres of early Earth and early Mars approximately 3.5 billion years ago. This parameter space exploration fascinates me and it is now the fact that early Earth had liquid water on its surface that has captured my attention,” she said. A senior at Stonehill, Horan continues her work with NASA as a Student Research Collaborator.

Under the supervision of Dr. Domagal-Goldman, she works remotely—logging into a super computer at NASA from the comfort of her dorm room to produce potential atmospheres that could induce a greenhouse effect to keep a planet above 273 K (freezing temperature).

To date, Horan has proposed many different ranges of atmospheric molecules that could lead to a planet warm enough to hold liquid water at the surface. After graduating from Stonehill in May, Horan will enter a Ph.D. program in Planetary Geosciences at Brown University under the guidance of academic advisor, Professor Jim Head. She will focus on early Mars, in particular researching the claim that despite it being unknown whether early Mars was warm enough to hold liquid water, it would geologically make sense for there to have been at least periods of warmth leading to liquid water (i.e. a step towards the planet having the capability to hold life).

Horan will search for atmospheres that makes this possible, as well as a geological explanation of how this makes sense. Proposed theories already exist, so Horan will be testing those theories. Horan’s post-graduate career aspirations are to work as a faculty member in the physics department of a college or university while continue to conduct research at NASA as a full-time employee.