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The Pluto Manager

Caitlin Ahrens / BS Geology and Physics, '15

From an early age, Caitlin Ahrens could be found at her local library, diving deep into subjects that nurtured her curiosity and love for science. Her father, the late Steve Ahrens, had an intense passion for science and space and served as an inspiration for much of her scientific career.

A Fairmont, West Virginia, native, she was an avid participant in her high school science fairs and jumped at joining the astronomy club as soon as she could. During her undergraduate career at West Virginia University, Ahrens reveled at the chance to present her own research project to professionals in the field. This opportunity solidified her love for sharing scientific findings with others. She graduated from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences in 2015 with bachelor of science degrees in geology and physics, with an emphasis in astrophysics.

Now a PhD candidate at the University of Arkansas, Ahrens has researched everything from earthquakes, to rocket science, to radio pulsars, and now Pluto.

“I first became interested in geophysics during junior high by reading geology books and wondering how rocks and minerals can change and how larger structures and processes like volcanoes and earthquakes work,” Ahrens said.

As part of her studies at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Science, Ahrens led the charge in developing the Pluto Simulation Laboratory. This lab was responsible for analyzing the first close-up images of Pluto captured by the NASA New Horizons interplanetary space probe launched in 2015.

Despite the public outrage when space scientists reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2006, there is still a lot that can be learned from the unique heavenly body, Ahrens explains. Pluto has stunning blue skies, spinning moons, red snow and mountains as high as the Rockies.

Ahrens is diving deep into the fascinating world of Pluto. She studies its various forms of ice and surface geology, such as glaciers and mountains. By doing this, she can see how the ice changes as it comes in contact with very cold temperatures, some negative 441 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It’s important to me to express the excitement of space science to the general public, and it is fulfilling knowing that I make others feel excited about our solar system and all of the cool, amazing research that is taking place.”
— Caitlin Ahrens

“I like to think I’m an outer solar system bartender — I make icy cocktails and see how those ices form crystals and look at what happens to that ice on an atomic level at very low temperatures,” Ahrens said. “The really fun part has been carbon monoxide ices. Hardly anything has been done with carbon monoxide ices, and it does some pretty weird stuff depending on what other kinds of ice it interacts with.”

In January 2017, Ahrens was giving public lectures across northwest Arkansas when a member of the audience suggested that she go on public radio to talk about the work being done at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Science. Following the advice, she set up a meeting with the local NPR station, which led to the creation of her radio show, “Scratching the Surface.”

Caitlin Ahrens in the lab smiling at the camera

The weekly, two-minute segments on KUAF 91.3 FM deal with any and all of the latest information and activity about the solar system. In one particular episode, Ahrens revealed to the public that the Jezero Crater would be the landing site of NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover.

“It’s important to me to express the excitement of space science to the general public, and it is fulfilling knowing that I make others feel excited about our solar system and all of the cool, amazing research that is taking place,” Ahrens said.

Ahrens is also a fierce advocate for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). She regularly attends Girl Scout meetings, science events and workshops for women in STEM.

“There are still some discrepancies and myths about women in science, so promoting being a woman in science is such a powerful and motivational feeling,” Ahrens said. “I have had instances when other scientists, both male and female, have put my self-confidence levels at low points, but my persistence, motivation and great mentor support helped me get through those times. I want to be a support for those young women, too.”

In 2018, Ahrens was chosen as the Jaycees Outstanding Young American for her role as a NASA Solar System Ambassador. This role allows her to give public lectures at public libraries, Osher Lifelong Learning Centers, schools and even STEM-related after-school groups. She also received the 2018 Ten Outstanding Young American Award for her science outreach efforts.

“I think there should always be excitement about science in the public,” Ahrens said. “You don’t need a doctorate to discover and be curious about science. Getting the public excited about science also helps scientists figure out how to steer our research and receive input on what and how we should explore.”

To add to her already impressive list of accomplishments as a young scientist, Ahrens holds a patent in earthquake science.

“My father started the idea and the patent, but unfortunately had an untimely death,” Ahrens said. “I finished the patent work and still continue to do the work today.”

Her patent explains the methodology for statistically forecasting earthquakes on a global scale.

“I did research with the WVU Department of Geology and Geography to help strengthen the method,” Ahrens said. “The patent is now being used for publishing purposes and conference presentations for awareness to the seismologist community.”

In the future, Ahrens aspires to work as a team member for a NASA space mission. She wants to expand her earthquake research toward hazard assessment on Earth and studying seismic activity on other planets’ surfaces, while still communicating science to the public.