The universal language

Margaret Landis studies how the universe abroad can offer insight into our planet.

For Margaret Landis, it wasn’t enough to passively gaze at the starts and theorize about what makes our greater galaxy function. Landis, a Northern Arizona University Honors student and physics and astronomy major, seeks to become fluent in the language of how our universe works on a fundamental level, and to learn how this knowledge can help us to understand the natural processes on our own planet.

Growing up in Bellingham, Washington, where cloud coverage constantly hindered night sky viewing, Landis chose Northern Arizona University for its facilitation of astronomy and star gazing. Flagstaff is the nation’s first International Dark Sky City, and Northern Arizona University is renowned worldwide for its observational astronomy focus, offering a program that features prime undergraduate research opportunities and a chance to work closely with professors who are experts in the field.

Landis explains having the opportunity to work with the cutting edge equipment and facilities wasn’t just great experience – it was a lifelong dream come true.

“I was interested in astronomy and the exploration aspect from a very young age, but it became serious when I was in middle school,” Landis says. “I followed the Mars Rover missions and the developing debate about what actually counts as a planet. About the same time, exoplanets (planets discovered outside our solar system) were becoming big news, and my interest in astronomy really flourished.”

Making an impact

Landis’ undergraduate research, funded by NASA, focused on impact craters on the three billion-year-old surface of Mars in an area called Arabia Terra. Landis is investigating the role of surface and subsurface water and ice in the geologic evolution of the red planet. Then, in a Harvard-Smithsonian 2012 summer internship, Landis studied disks around young stellar objects – the dust and gas left over from a “stellar envelope” that’s not yet a star.

These studies inform Landis on her emphases of Martian research and planet formation. Particularly, she works with computer data, analyzing her research on impact cratering to glean more insight into these processes. “I’m really proud of my research and its quality,” Landis says. “That’s what I’m passionate about and I’m glad to have the opportunity as an undergraduate to pursue what I love doing.”

Landis’ impressive research findings have received recognition from around the country, earning her a ten-week summer internship in 2012 through the National Science Foundation with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Here, Landis studied disks around young stellar objects – about one to two million years old – the dust and gas left over from a “stellar envelope” that’s not yet a star.

“Looking at the variability of disks, we can detect changes in structure, and it’s likely that these changes in disks at certain ages can indicate planets. The project looks at WISE (Wide-field Infrared Sky Explorer) telescope data with the hope that eventually this variability can be linked to systems that have formed planets over time.”

Landis’ enthusiasm for her research is evident, and yields results that are potentially groundbreaking. “My advisor said this is the largest mid-infrared study in terms of number of objects looked at. It’s safe to say I did something last summer that no one else has ever done.”

Advocate for change

Equally important to her advances in the scientific field is Landis’ ability to serve as a role model and inspiration, and to serve as an advocate for addressing gender bias in scientific fields.

“I want to be a role model for the next generation of physicists,” Landis says. “I don’t know yet if I want to focus on lab work or academics, but I’ll definitely provide mentoring, because that’s the way the field will change for the better.”

For Landis, the importance of woman-to-woman mentoring in science was driven home a year ago when she attended the Western Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, where she met numerous women who had earned PhDs in physics.

She recalls, “It was less of a research conference and more a way to address the issues that women in the field face. The other sciences are getting much closer to having 50/50 male to female ratio in education, but physics is still notoriously poor at including women and other minority groups. Women are still having problems being recruited and retained in the field as undergraduates. The gathering was a way to tell us we’re not alone. It was empowering. Seeing how the full inclusion of more women in physics will play out in the decades of my own career will be interesting.”

Mentoring others

Landis’ mentoring began in the University Honors program, where she was challenged by rigorous, multidisciplinary courses, and enjoyed benefits like early enrollment and expanded library privileges. Landis has helped first-year Honors students transition to college as a peer mentor and GURU (Guide for University Retention for Undergraduates) for three years, a role she’s proud of.

“I love it when physics, astronomy and other science students – any students, really – come through the Honors program and I can be an example of someone who’s been successful in college,” Landis says.

As Landis prepares to embark on the next step of her career – she plans to pursue graduate school this summer, following her recent graduation – she’s grateful for the foundation Northern Arizona University provided her, and at the prospects available to her in the future.

“I’m a fragile, organic thing on planet Earth, but I get to ask these questions through some clever experiments. I’m excited to be an advocate and do science – and find what the answers to these questions will tell us about so many things.”