U of A Graduate Student Named Outstanding Young West Virginian
The West Virginia Junior Chamber has named Caitlin Ahrens, a University of Arkansas space and planetary science doctoral student, a 2018 Outstanding Young West Virginian. Ahrens was selected for the award due to her promotion of science and advocacy for women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"Caitlin is an absolute treasure and is an outstanding representative for the space and planetary science program and for the University of Arkansas," said Larry Roe, director of Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences.
Ahrens leads a monthly space lecture at the Fayetteville Public Library, gives keynote speeches about space to multiple local organizations and hosts the space-centered radio show Scratching the Surface on KUAF. As a NASA Solar System Ambassador, Ahrens also regularly travels to schools in Northwest Arkansas to talk to students of all ages about NASA's space exploration missions and discoveries.
Ahrens' graduate research is centered on the geology of Pluto, specifically the nature of ice on the dwarf planet. Scientists know there is ice on Pluto, but little is known about what kind of ice it is.
"On Pluto, minus-400 degrees Fahrenheit is a warm summer day, so it's way too cold for the ice to be made from water," Ahrens said. "We're likely dealing with carbon monoxide, nitrogen and methane."
Ahrens, the campus' Pluto lab manager, makes ice mixtures from various elements and subjects them to Pluto conditions in the lab's simulation chamber. She observes the concoctions to see how the elements interact with each other and how the ice grows. Ahrens' findings are then used to build computer models of what the ice might look like in different time periods on Pluto.
"Knowing how ices interact on Pluto helps us move backwards and learn about the origins of our solar system and learn how those ices got there," she said. "It's still a learning process, but that's the fun part."
Finding fun in learning is how the Fairmont, West Virginia, native maintains her passion for discovery.
"My mantra and the mantra I encourage others to embrace is 'always be curious,'" Ahrens said. "A lot of people forget that. A lot of people think you have to get a Ph.D. to do science, but that's not true. If you're interested in something, search the internet, read a book, watch YouTube videos — just keep fueling science."
Ahrens, who is advised by Vincent Chevrier, is on track to complete her doctorate in spring 2020.
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