July 28, 2020
She will spend the money entirely on her research, attending conferences, buying new instruments, and for field trips for terrestrial analogues and she plans an excursion to southern Africa, to Botswana. "There are areas on Earth that resemble those on Mars and help us to infer the geological processes that shaped Mars," says Erica Luzzi. The doctoral candidate for planetary geology at Jacobs University is enthusiastic about the red planet: "When I look at satellite images of its surface, I sometimes discover geological structures that no one else has seen before, the available data is huge and sometimes unexplored. This is truly pioneering work."
The 10,000 US dollar scholarship that she recently received will allow her to study Mars even more intensively. Named after the aviator Amelia Earhart, who in 1932 became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a solo flight, it supports young female scientists who are doing a doctorate in aerospace engineering or space sciences. Up to 35 women worldwide receive the scholarship every year. "I did not expect to be one of them. It was a surprise and makes me very, very happy and proud," says the 28-year-old.
The Italian came to Jacobs University in 2017 to complete her Master's degree as a guest student working with Dr. Angelo Pio Rossi, Professor of Earth and Planetary Research. She had previously studied geology at La Sapienza University in Rome, where one of her professors had awakened her enthusiasm for the geological structures of Mars. They are often similar to those on Earth and have remained unchanged for millions of years. "To be able to study the geology of a planet a good 228 million kilometers away from Earth and to enter uncharted territory in the process is absolutely fascinating," enthuses Erica Luzzi.
No wonder, then, that she also deals with Mars in her doctorate, namely with its geological mapping. "I analyze a part of the surface of Mars with the help of various satellite images and produce maps for this area," is the short version of her doctoral thesis. These maps form the basis for studies by scientists in other fields, but also for future expeditions to Mars, whether with robots or with humans. They contain, for example, information about the composition of the surface, the possible underground structures, the mineralogy of the rocks or the appearance and age of craters and volcanoes. Potential landing sites and possible targets for future missions are also recorded in the maps.
An expedition to Mars is no longer a distant vision. Astronauts from the European Space Agency ESA are being prepared for such a mission – and Erica Luzzi assisted them. She was part of a team of scientists which trained the astronauts in geology on Lanzarote and supported them in performing human and telerobotic experiments for future exploration. The geological setting of the Canary island is similar to areas on Mars and the Moon and the astronauts learned to recognize rocks and structures, so that on future missions they could take the right rock samples for further scientific analysis on Earth.
Part of the team was also her doctoral supervisor, Professor Angelo Pio Rossi, who played a major role in her coming to Bremen. "I have a lot of freedom in my research, but he is always available when I have questions and supports me with many ideas. I could not have found a better mentor," she says. Furthermore, working as teaching assistant with Dr. Vikram Unnithan, Professor of Geosciences, she teaches Jacobs University students in their structural geology and sedimentology courses.
Teaching and doing research at a University – that's what she wants to do after completing her doctorate next summer. And preferably in Italy: "I love my country more than anything else." But realizing that will be difficult, she believes, "To become a professor in Italy in my field of study is very challenging."
Nevertheless, she will try and continue her scientific path after the doctorate. If she does not find a position in Italy, she will apply abroad with a heavy heart, that is her plan B. "If I don't find the work of my dreams, I activate plan C," she says, half joking. Erica Luzzi would then take over her parents' restaurant, located half an hour's drive from Rome, in a medieval village on a hill in the Apennines. This scenario, though, is unlikely to occur. Even though cooking is one of her passions, Mars fascinates her more.
This text is part of the series "Faces of Jacobs", in which Jacobs University introduces students, alumni, professors and staff. Further episodes can be found at www.jacobs-university.de/faces.