• Astrobiologist: Kevin Hand
    Kevin Hand is an astrobiologist.

    Photograph courtesy Kevin Hand

    Cosmos Education
    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."

    By National Geographic Education Staff

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    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.

    EARLY WORK

    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.”

    GEO-CONNECTION

    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 . . .”

    GET INVOLVED

    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.”

  • 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.

    altitude Noun

    the distance above sea level.

    Encyclopedic Entry: altitude
    astrobiologist Noun

    person who studies the possibility of life in outer space.

    astronomy Noun

    the study of space beyond Earth's atmosphere.

    astrophysicist Noun

    person who studies the relationship between matter, energy, motion, and force outside the Earth's atmosphere.

    atmosphere Noun

    layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere
    biology Noun

    study of living things.

    bureaucracy Noun

    process with many procedures and rules.

    canyon Noun

    deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

    Encyclopedic Entry: canyon
    chemistry Noun

    study of the atoms and molecules that make up different substances.

    churn Verb

    to mix vigorously or violently.

    constraint Noun

    limitation or obstacle.

    crater Noun

    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.

    debate Verb

    to argue or disagree in a formal setting.

    deploy Verb

    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.

    engineering Noun

    the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

    Europa Noun

    moon of Jupiter.

    extraterrestrial Adjective

    located or formed outside Earth's atmosphere.

    foster Verb

    to promote the growth or development of something.

    geography Noun

    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).

    ice Noun

    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.

    Jupiter Noun

    largest planet in the solar system, the fifth planet from the Sun.

    lander Noun

    space probe designed to land on a moon, planet, asteroid, or other celestial body.

    landscape Noun

    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.

    moon Noun

    natural satellite of a planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: moon
    mountain Noun

    landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

    NASA Noun

    (acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration) U.S. agency responsible for space research and systems.

    ocean Noun

    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.

    orbiter Noun

    space probe that collects data about a planet or moon from orbit around the object.

    organic Adjective

    composed of living or once-living material.

    organic chemistry Noun

    study of chemical compounds containing the element carbon.

    paperwork Noun

    administrative or clerical responsibilities that include reports, charts, and filling out forms.

    penetrate Verb

    to push through.

    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    physics Noun

    study of the physical processes of the universe, especially the interaction of matter and energy.

    planet Noun

    large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.

    Encyclopedic Entry: planet
    primary Adjective

    first or most important.

    probe Noun

    spacecraft designed to study part of the solar system and send information back to Earth.

    psychology Noun

    study of mental and behavioral patterns and characteristics.

    rocket Noun

    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.

    succinct Adjective

    having few words.

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