Rev. Pamela Conrad: Meet the Mars rover scientist who can also be a priest


By evening, and at odd moments in the course of the day, Conrad moonlights as a analysis scientist on the Carnegie Establishment of Science in Washington, DC. A member of the tactical operations staff for the Mars Perseverance rover mission, she is a co-investigator for 2 scientific instrument suites, buying and analyzing knowledge, and collaborating in staff planning, with colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and different scientific establishments across the nation.

By day, the 68-year-old is an Episcopalian priest, main a congregation at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, in Glen Burnie, Maryland.

It has lengthy been acquired knowledge that science and the humanities, to say nothing of science and faith, are mutually incomprehensible domains that have a look at fully totally different issues. That concept has been crumbling in recent times, when educational specializations have given technique to interdisciplinary approaches.

Skilled as a geologist, amongst different disciplines, Conrad has totally different concepts.

“There isn’t any conflict between science and faith,” she mentioned. “Each examine the surprise of the world and our place in it.”

Of rocks and other people

This crossing of disciplinary strains hasn’t been simple, at the least not for the pioneers, who needed to overcome a number of institutional resistance.

“The tutorial system forces college students to be both scientists or humanists. It does not acknowledge that the identical spirit and among the similar strategies underlie each artwork and science,” graphic designer and laptop scientist John Maeda, a former MIT Media Lab professor, as soon as instructed me.

“Our objective ought to be to provide Renaissance individuals who take a cross-disciplinary method to issues, da Vincian people who find themselves serious about the whole lot and might do the whole lot.”

“I studied the whole lot,” Conrad mentioned. A fast have a look at her credentials reveals simply that da Vincian individual of whom Maeda spoke.

She earned all her levels at George Washington College within the US capital, beginning as a music main who, alongside the best way, found geology and was smitten. She took a number of science programs her first 12 months and a half earlier than closing in on a bachelor’s diploma in music in 1974, then added a grasp’s diploma in music composition — she was considering a profession as an opera singer — in 1987. She returned to science to finish a doctorate in geology in 1998.

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Underlying that “terminal” diploma was an curiosity in how life shaped in unpromising conditions, akin to thermal vents deep down on the ocean ground. Due to a type of right-place, right-time moments, as she recounts, she chanced to satisfy the famend director James Cameron, who had taken the proceeds from movies akin to “Titanic” and constructed a submersible analysis vessel. Due to deep-sea footage Cameron shot for a 3D IMAX movie, footage that he later put to work within the science-fiction function “Avatar,” Conrad was capable of examine thermal vents in additional element than any researcher had seen thus far.

The 12 months after she earned her doctorate, NASA — on the lookout for scientists to work on geobiological elements of the Curiosity rover — employed her as a contractor on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by the California Institute of Expertise.

“We are attempting to know if the processes that allowed life to develop and flourish on Earth ever occurred on Mars. In the event that they did, we need to know if life appeared — and, if not, then why not?” she instructed an interviewer from her alumni journal lately. It is a query whose reply she pursues as actively immediately as she did on first being employed in 1999.

The primary experiments she helped design weren’t chosen — as she explains it, there’s a stiff however collegial rivalry amongst NASA researchers to get their gear on what’s, in spite of everything, a fairly small craft. Nonetheless, she stored at it. Conrad transitioned from her position at JPL in 2010 and served as a full-time civil servant scientist at NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Middle in Greenbelt, Maryland, till 2017. Because the deputy principal investigator for pattern evaluation at Mars, she labored on the Curiosity rover mission and different initiatives whereas refining the questions she would later discover.

Turning to the spirit — and returning to Mars

Conrad explored Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada.

It wasn’t till a lot later in her life that Conrad turned to the examine of faith. After experiencing an epiphany on a wind-blasted day throughout a piece journey to Antarctica, she rejoined the Episcopalian Church of her youth, then entered the Episcopal Divinity College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She accomplished a grasp’s diploma in divinity in 2017, simply as the college turned affiliated with Union Theological Seminary in New York Metropolis. Quickly afterward, she assumed management of her Maryland congregation.

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When NASA turned up the warmth on the Mars Perseverance Rover mission at about the identical time, one in every of her experiments was chosen for inclusion. This one is a set of devices referred to as SHERLOC (Scanning Liveable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemical compounds), which, she mentioned, “was not mature sufficient” to discover a place on earlier missions.

It is meant to search for microbial life, with instruments that embrace a vibrational spectrometer that may determine minerals and natural molecules discovered on the Martian floor — akin to hydrogen and carbon, the constructing blocks of life on Earth. It additionally contains two high-resolution cameras.

The priest-scientist visited Mono Lake, California.

“Placing all this collectively concerned a giant staff of individuals,” she mentioned, “and I am only one individual on that staff.”

Trying to find life on Mars is not her prime precedence anymore, although.

“I need to make this very clear,” Conrad mentioned. “My first job, and my first duty, is now because the pastor of a church. What you see on Sunday is simply part of it. I’ve duties to my parishioners and their wants, and ultimately, individuals have to return first. Persons are much more tender than rocks.”

Even so, she logs loads of hours in her now part-time position in issues Martian, working from her house workplace for the reason that Covid-19 pandemic hit. The schedule is breakneck and, to make certain, holding down two jobs might be greater than somewhat exhausting.

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Drained or not, there are classes she needs to impart whereas performing as a priest. Foremost, Conrad insisted, is the sacredness of all issues.

“Understanding that’s simply one of many instruments that folks must dwell life, to dwell in group and to deal with one another nicely. My different lesson, I suppose, is the advantage of going gently, of residing quieter and extra considerate lives.”

The pandemic, she provides, made for the right alternative to replicate on that, and to deepen her mission with these classes in thoughts.

Onward to the celebrities

If Conrad has any regrets, they middle on her adolescence — for when John Glenn’s Mercury craft went skyward in 1962, she was simply 9 and needed greater than the rest to turn into an astronaut. That path was denied girls for many years, and she or he has needed to make do with the distinguished, variety-packed trajectory that adopted. Although studded with honors and mental pleasure, it has stored her earthbound.

Her inquiry has broadened with the addition of a clerical position to her scientific one: the query of whether or not life can exist on different planets is reshaped to one thing extra like, “If God can create life right here, can God create — and has God created — life elsewhere?” The reply to that query, Conrad mentioned, is easy: “In fact.”

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That life, she added, is prone to be microbial and easy, and never the ETs of our creativeness. However it is going to be life, and that is a quest that retains Conrad motivated and nonstop busy.

However will she ever enterprise into area? Do not rule it out.

Gregory McNamee writes about books, science, meals, geography and lots of different subjects from his house in Arizona.



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