Debra Hurwitz
Planetary Geologist
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

A Geologist in the Violin Section

By Ahmad A. Malik

When she was a child, Debra Hurwitz pondered the complexity and vastness of the night sky. For as long as she can remember, she has been on a personal quest for knowledge, armed with questions as simple, yet profound as how many stars there really are in the cosmos. Her fondness for seeking answers to universal questions would eventually lead her to an active role at NASA.


On Her Love of Science

Hurwitz is a planetary geologist based at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she is engaged in post-doctoral work as a researcher on the RIS4E project. A self-funded member of the Hawaii field project, Hurwitz served on the crew team, simulating the actions astronauts will take while performing extra-vehicular activities on the surface of other planetary bodies, mainly Mars. She also conducted research on a separate initiative considering how lava forms and what its role is in planetary evolution of the solar system.

After earning her Ph.D. in geology from Brown University in 2012, Hurwitz returned to her hometown of Houston for a post-doc at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, where she studied volcanic processes relating to impact craters, a departure from traditional volcanology. She then moved on to Goddard, working alongside Jacob Bleacher, the field leader of the Hawaii expedition.

Hurwitz came to planetary science from what she describes as a “busy childhood” that included a lot of sports and music. She practiced violin late at night and her dedication led her to become concert master of the orchestra at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. She continued playing in the orchestra of Brown University while earning her masters and Ph.D. in geology.

Hurwitz also competed as a distance swimmer only three steps down from the Olympics. She joined her first swim team at age four and says her extra-curricular dedication as a child was a way for her to engage a different side of her brain, apart from her academic work.

The daughter of two physicians who work in the biomedical field, Hurwitz quickly found that she enjoyed science, though geology caught her eye more than biology. In one of her classes, she traveled to Yellowstone National Park for a week, living out of a coach bus and visiting hot springs and geysers. That hooked her. During her introductory geology course at Pomona, Hurwitz became involved in research, mapping the surface of Venus.

“To this day, I’ve continued walking this path, and it’s been really fascinating with how many different processes on all these different planets that I’ve had the opportunity to work on.”

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