Kevin is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He is studying the possibilities for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is most likely covered by an ice-capped ocean.
Kevin also helped found Cosmos Education, an organization dedicated to advancing science education among African children.
Kevin laughs when he recalls being “obsessed with aliens” as a boy and devouring science fiction books and movies.
As a high school student, Kevin participated in science fairs, with experiments focusing on physics and astronomy. While building rockets, he also developed an interest in engineering.
Kevin went on to study physics and psychology at Dartmouth College. He then earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, where he stayed to earn his PhD in geological and environmental sciences.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“The pursuit of new knowledge, and being a part of something taking place on a grand scale. We have an incredible team [at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory].”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
Working with a government agency involves a lot of paperwork, applications, and bureaucracy. “It has to be done, but it’s not my favorite part of the job,” Kevin says.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“I define geography in the context of geology and how it interacts with life and organic chemistry.”
Scientists and engineers at NASA must work with the geography of different planets and moons when planning to send probes. There are “craters, canyons, mountains, and, where I’m looking on Europa, broken-up icebergs,” Kevin says.
Geographic data help scientists and engineers decide what type of probe to send. The two main types of probes are orbiters, which stay in orbit above a planet and take pictures and other data, and landers, which actually parachute onto the surface of a planet or moon. The landscape of a planet can sometimes be a constraint, Kevin says.
“There are some tall mountains on Mars. Some of the astrophysicists may want to have a probe land on the mountain and study the geology and atmosphere there. But the engineers object to that because the altitude doesn’t give the lander enough time to safely deploy its parachute. So, there’s a lot of debate about the safety and science of how to study a site.”
Kevin is part of a team developing a probe to send to Europa in about 2020. Europa is covered by a thick layer of ice, but there are several red spots where organic material from below may be churning to the surface. Kevin hopes a probe can land near one of these red spots and collect the material. (Having a probe actually penetrate Europa’s 20-kilometer (12-mile) thick ice layer is “the dream of dreams,” he says.)
Knowing the geography of Europa is “central to efforts to search for signs of life on other worlds,” Kevin says. “There is no succinct definition of life, but everything we know points to the necessity of liquid water.”
If Europa is covered by an active, liquid ocean below the icy surface, it is one of the most likely sites for extraterrestrial life in our solar system. “We could find Europan fish, we don’t know!” Kevin laughs.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ASTROBIOLOGIST
Astronomy and astrobiology are interdisciplinary studies, Kevin says. “Study biology, chemistry, physics, engineering . . .”
Kevin encourages families to foster curiosity about the world around them—and beyond. “I grew up under the clear skies of Vermont, so just looking up inspired me.”
Kevin Hands work with Cosmos Education may seem far removed from his work as an astrobiologist, but he says the organization is simply encouraging the next generation of science teachers, doctors, and scientists. Cosmos Education works primarily with schools in Kenya and Zambia to foster critical thinking skills across a wide variety of scientific disciplines. The hands-on activities may include studies on HIV/AIDS care and prevention, basic chemistry labs, and even lessons on how soap is manufactured.
"It's important to Cosmos Education that local leaders guide the program. I'm a white guy from the United States, the poster boy of [contemporary] science," Kevin says. "Local mentors can provide better leadership. Their stories, about what they do and how they got there, help students see themselves succeeding in these fields."
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry AIDS Noun
(acquired immune deficiency syndrome) disease that debilitates the immune system, making the victim vulnerable to infections.
the distance above sea level.
Encyclopedic Entry: altitude astrobiologist Noun
person who studies the possibility of life in outer space.
the study of space beyond Earth's atmosphere.
person who studies the relationship between matter, energy, motion, and force outside the Earth's atmosphere.
layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.
Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere biology Noun
study of living things.
process with many procedures and rules.
deep, narrow valley with steep sides.
Encyclopedic Entry: canyon chemistry Noun
study of the atoms and molecules that make up different substances.
to mix vigorously or violently.
limitation or obstacle.
bowl-shaped depression formed by a volcanic eruption or impact of a meteorite.
Encyclopedic Entry: crater critical thinking Noun
process of analyzing and evaluating the truth and worth of a concept.
data Plural Noun
(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.
to argue or disagree in a formal setting.
to make ready for use or put into use.
Emerging Explorer Noun
an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.
the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.
moon of Jupiter.
located or formed outside Earth's atmosphere.
to promote the growth or development of something.
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
Encyclopedic Entry: geography geology Noun
study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.
government agency Noun
organization serving the government of a country or nation.
human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) Noun
type of infection that can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
water in its solid form.
Encyclopedic Entry: ice iceberg Noun
large chunks of ice that break off from glaciers and float in the ocean.
Encyclopedic Entry: iceberg Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Noun
NASA center that focuses on robotic exploration of the solar system.
largest planet in the solar system, the fifth planet from the Sun.
space probe designed to land on a moon, planet, asteroid, or other celestial body.
the geographic features of a region.
Encyclopedic Entry: landscape liquid Noun
state of matter with no fixed shape and molecules that remain loosely bound with each other.
mechanical engineering Noun
study of the design, production, and operation of tools and machinery.
natural satellite of a planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: moon mountain Noun
landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.
(National Aeronautics and Space Administration) the U.S. space agency, whose mission statement is "To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind."
large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: ocean orbit Noun
path of one object around a more massive object.
space probe that collects data about a planet or moon from orbit around the object.
composed of living or once-living material.
organic chemistry Noun
study of chemical compounds containing the element carbon.
administrative or clerical responsibilities that include reports, charts, and filling out forms.
to push through.
(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.
study of the physical processes of the universe, especially the interaction of matter and energy.
large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.
Encyclopedic Entry: planet primary Adjective
first or most important.
spacecraft designed to study part of the solar system and send information back to Earth.
study of mental and behavioral patterns and characteristics.
device that moves through the atmosphere by release of expanding gas.
science fair Noun
competition where participants display a project researching or studying a scientific hypothesis.
science fiction adjective, noun
art form that draws on knowledge of science for plot, setting, or character.
solar system Noun
the sun and the planets, asteroids, comets, and other bodies that orbit around it.
having few words.