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WVU geology, physics alum named 2018 Jaycees Outstanding West Virginian

From the moment West Virginia University alumna Caitlin Ahrens picked up her first geology book in junior high, she never stopped exploring her curiosity. She graduated from WVU’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences in 2015 with bachelor of science degrees in geology and physics with an emphasis in astrophysics.

Caitlin Ahrens, WVU geography and physics alumna
Caitlin Ahrens

“WVU honed my research skills and helped me develop my curiosity to try different kinds of science,” Ahrens said.

Ahrens holds a patent in earthquake sciences and entered the graduate program in space and planetary science at the University of Arkansas in 2015. She was chosen as the 2018 Jaycees Outstanding Young West Virginian for her role as a NASA ambassador and advocacy for young women in science. Ahrens has given numerous talks, in person and on her radio show, “Scratching the Surface,” and is always looking for opportunities to bring excitement into the general public about space sciences. Sometimes she will even bring her personal meteorite collection for demonstrations.

While Ahrens spends most of her time encouraging the public and especially young women to be curious about STEM subjects, in her spare time she knits for charity and collects minerals. She talked with us about her career goals and plans for the future.

How did you first become interested in geophysics?

I first became interested in geophysics through junior high and high school by reading geology books and wondering how rocks and minerals can change to wondering how larger structures and processes like volcanoes and earthquakes work.

Ahrens with two men from NASA.

Tell me about your role as a NASA Solar System Ambassador. What types of activities and events do you plan?

My role is to present exciting NASA missions and research to the public, whether that is with school groups or general public gatherings, such as the local libraries or Lifelong Learners. I tend to plan general public lectures for all ages and talk about exciting questions that we as scientists are still trying to answer in our solar system.

Tell us about your radio show and how to tune in.

“Scratching the Surface” is a two-minute program about the mysteries and facts of our solar system. It is on every Friday at 2:03 p.m. CST or 3:03 p.m. EST. Every week is something new from Mercury to Pluto and beyond. You can tune into 91.3 KUAF or listen to previous episodes on the KUAF website.

How do you advocate for girls in STEM? Why do you strive to encourage more girls into STEM?

I try to present at STEM clubs or Girl Scout groups to advocate girls for STEM. It is still a challenge to be a woman in science, but that challenge should not deter anyone from doing something they are passionate or curious about. That challenge should be a fuel, not a burn out, to strive for discovery.

Ahrens presents a topic in science to the public.

Why is it important for you to get the public excited about science?

I think there should always be an excitement about science in the public. You don’t need a doctorate to discover and be curious about science. Citizen science, or the opportunity for the general public to help scientists sift through their massive amounts of data, is becoming a bigger deal to help scientists filter through large amounts of data. Getting the public excited about science also helps us scientists figure out how to steer our research and receive input on what and how we should explore.

Tell us about your patent in earthquake sciences. What type of research did you do as part of the patent? How is the patent used?

The patent is a method for forecasting earthquakes on a statistics level, similar to a weather forecast, but for earthquake probability. I did research with the WVU Department of Geology and Geography to develop it more and strengthen the method. The patent is now being used for publishing purposes and conference presentations for awareness to the seismologist community.

What have you been up to since graduating from WVU in 2015?

I have been in charge of developing the Pluto Simulation Laboratory at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Science at the University of Arkansas since fall 2015, right as the New Horizons flyby started giving us images of Pluto. As the images were pouring in, I developed the lab to adhere to what we see in those pictures. I create ices relevant to Plutonian conditions and from there we can hypothesize how those ices behave and change on Pluto from New Horizons data. I have presented my findings at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas and the 2017 Ices in the Solar System Workshop at the European Space Astronomy Center in Madrid, Spain.

What student organizations, leadership roles, internships, research and other activities were you involved in at WVU?

I was the Telescope Operator from 2011 to 2015 for planetarium shows and demonstrations. I was treasurer and eventually president of the WVU Astronomy Club, and president of the Geology Club at one point. I also completed an internship with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona in 2012. My research started out with radio pulsars from 2010 to 2011. I received a Chesapeake Energy Scholar award and West Virginia NASA Space Grant scholarship for my earthquake research, which I studied from 2011 to 2015. In 2014, I researched rocket science and high-altitude payload.

What is your favorite memory from WVU?

My favorite memory from WVU was taking the Advanced Laboratory course in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. It was two semesters long, but well worth it. We were given a problem and a room full of tools to try to solve that scientific problem. Each month, we would get a different problem and then present our findings and methods. This course really helped me organize to better communicate my science.

What are your future career goals?

My career goals include solar system mission operations, whether pertaining to a mission director or science analyst preferably at Jet Propulsion Laboratory or Southwest Research Institute. From there, I plan to continue research and teach at a university. Throughout my career, I aspire to continue outreach through several public establishments, such as schools and libraries. I also hope to expand my earthquake research, which I have a patent for, toward hazard assessment on Earth and studying seismic activity on other planetary surfaces.

What advice would you give to prospective students considering a major in geology or physics?

Be persistent and be motivated. Science is constantly moving and changing, but being involved in that movement really brings excitement and curiosity to light in how we can expand our knowledge of the universe. Let it be your science and explore your curiosity.