Kelsey Young
Research Geologist
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Indefatigable Geologist

By Anthony DeNicola

Picture a team of field geologists and rover technicians camped next to an impact crater 200 miles away from civilization in Labrador, Canada. Shortly before dusk, one of the geologists and a technician leave to collect a sample from an outcrop of the crater about a half-mile away. On their way back, the clouds roll in, signaling a rainstorm. This doesn’t concern them, though. What concerns them is the bear that appears directly in their path back to camp.

“I had a bear banger,” Kelsey Young recalls, referring to a kind of firecracker that scares away bears. “But when I set it off in the bear’s face, he just looked at me like, ‘What was that supposed to do?’ and kept coming.”

Young and her companion tried to go around the bear, which meant traversing a cliff and climbing back down to camp, but the bear followed them. “We were on a cliff, it’s pitch dark, and it’s pouring rain and the bear was three feet above our head, within reach of us,” Young said. “I really thought, ‘this is it,’ and grabbed my hammer, which is ridiculous.”

Maybe not so ridiculous: The bear finally lost interest and the resolute rock collector made it safely back to camp with her prize, a piece of igneous rock called mangerite.

As collectors go, none may be more devoted to the art of finding and gathering the objects of their desire than geologists. They’ll go to great lengths to find rocks—“samples,” to use the proper term—and bring them home for investigation. There may be no better personification of this than Young, a 27 year-old post-doc and RIS4E field-team deputy leader who’s battled the elements on several continents in search of her treasure.

Young is the RIS4E project’s X-ray fluorescence (XRF) team leader. The technology provides information about the chemical composition of surface rock, and Young, along with her teammate, Cynthia Evans, was responsible for testing the hand-held XRF scanner in the field and identifying samples to take back for further lab analysis.

Young was introduced to XRF while working with Evans as a fellow at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in 2010, and she made it half her Ph.D. work. (The other half was on impact craters.) Her experience, and good working relationship with Evans and other RIS4E team members, led field leader Jacob Bleacher to ask her to lead the XRF team, and also serve as his deputy field leader for the Hawaii expedition.

To the uninitiated, the study of rocks may seem about as exciting as, well, studying rocks. But to hear Young talk about geology is a bit like listening to a highly caffeinated New York City cab driver talk about his home country. The information comes fast and you might not understand all of it, but the excitement is contagious, your interest is piqued and they are happy to answer your questions.

Young began her formal career in geology while an undergrad at Notre Dame, but can trace her interest in science and nature back to fourth grade, when her father took Young and her sister on a hiking trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in Utah.

“On the first day of the trip, before the hike I was being a brat and demanded to be taken back to the car and my dad said, ‘Fine, go wait in the car, we’ll see you in a couple hours,’ ” Young recalled. “Twenty minutes later I was running up the trail and I loved it. That is when I got interested in science.”

Even though Young was born 18 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, she feels a strong connection between her field work and the space program. She’s now using some of the Apollo instruments she’s seen in museums and trying to make improvements for the next group of astronauts.

“A lot of the new technology we are testing is designed based on instruments from the original Apollo missions,” Young said. “So it’s really inspirational to think that even just a small part of what we’re doing here as part of the RIS4E mission will benefit the next generation of space exploration.”

Like many NASA scientists, Young applied to be an astronaut herself, in 2013. And like most applicants, she wasn’t accepted, but says she’ll try again. In the meantime she’s happy to be in a position to contribute to the future of American space exploration in whatever way she can.

For now, that means finding and studying rocks on earth that might reveal things about the planetary bodies future astronauts might visit. For instance, the piece of mangerite she risked her life for in Canada. After evading the bear and making it down the cliff to safety, Young hoped the rock could help her discern the age of the impact crater from which it came.

Given what she went through to get it, she said, “All I could think was, ‘This rock better be the answer to science. At least give us the age of the crater. So I brought it back to the lab and it turned out to be nothing. I learned no new information at all.

“But it’s still my favorite sample.”

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