•SCIENTIST OF THE YEAR•
Adriana C. Ocampo, Ph.D.
Lead Program Executive
New Frontier Program
Science Mission Directorate,
Planetary Science Division
Education: Ph.D., planetary science, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands; M.S. geology, California State University, Northridge; B.S. geology, California State University, Los Angeles; AD, science, Pasadena City College.
For truly accomplished individuals in any field of endeavor, an aura of inevitability seems to glow around every detail of their personal story, as if every episode of their past foretold their future successes. So reads the story of Dr. Adriana C. Ocampo, a planetary geologist and the Lead Program Executive of the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s New Frontiers Program.
From the earliest days of her childhood, Dr. Ocampo’s life has been on a collision course with achievements and discoveries that have advanced humanity’s understanding of the cosmos, and our place in it. She’s worked on a number of NASA planetary science projects, including the Juno mission to Jupiter, the New
Horizons mission to Pluto, and the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return mission. And she was a central figure in the historic discovery of the Chicxulub crater in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula (more on that below).
For the Juno Mission to Jupiter alone, she manages a budget of over one $1 Billion. As if all of that wasn’t enough, she’s also the lead scientist responsible for NASA’s collaboration with the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Venus Climate Orbiter mission, and she’s currently leading NASA’s role on the VENERA-D Joint science Definition Team to study a potential flagship mission to Venus with the Russian Space agency, Roscosmos.
Born in Colombia, Dr. Ocampo’s parents moved the family to Argentina when she was still in arms. Growing up in Buenos Aires, the stars of the southern hemisphere had a visceral pull on her curiosity.
“As a little girl, I used to go to the roof of my house and look at the stars and really wonder what those points of light were,” she recalls. “What were they made of? Were there people like us out there? How far were they? It really was the call of the stars that first drove me to try to understand these things and ultimately led me into science.”
She praises her parents for nurturing that drive to understand how things worked, although young Adriana didn’t always make it easy on them. “I was a curious child and I used to run my own science experiments, much to the horror of my mother at times.”
Once, Adriana wanted to know more about the wings on common house flies, specifically if they grew back once removed. So she did what anyone would do. She caught as many as she could and plucked the wings off of them.
“My mother came home one day and was shocked to find all of these flies in the kitchen without wings,” she remembers. The results of that experiment, however, were conclusive. “I could say definitively that the wings of flies do NOT grow back,” she stated with an affirmative chuckle.
When she was 15, Dr. Ocampo found herself on the move again, this time to the United States. Fortuitously – inevitably? – her parents settled near Pasadena, California, a city famous for its association with space travel. She recalls being shy in high school and a bit intimidated by the language and cultural barriers, but she saw an opportunity to break out of her shell when she learned about a student group that participated in projects overseen by engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory nearby.
“That to me sounded like a dream come true, and I immediately got involved,” she remembers. Soon she and her group were engaged with professional scientists on projects that had real world applications and utilized imagery and other data from weather satellites in space at the time. Her group worked in a trailer set-up in one of JPL’s parking lots, and they were tasked with developing a way to receive signals from that satellite and analyze images for an environmental component of the overall mission.
“We even had to submit a report to the JPL Director, Dr. William Pickering,” she remembers warmly. “Just imagine these high school kids presenting a formal report to a Director of a NASA Center. It was extraordinary.”
Dr. Ocampo credits that experience for exposing her to the rigors and demands of working in the scientific arena, and also to it’s potential for educational and professional fulfillment. “It was like a ride inside my own Disneyland, and I didn’t want to leave.”
And she didn’t. As soon as she could, she took entry level positions at JPL, positions she maintained while attending nearby Pasadena City College and later California State University, Los Angeles. After completing her B.S. degree in geology, she joined JPL full time, where she soon found herself in increasingly prominent roles on high profile missions, including the Viking, Galileo, and Landsat programs. She quickly earned a reputation as an expert at applying novel, remote sensing techniques to solve a wide array of problems here on earth. This expertise led to one of the most remarkable discoveries in scientific history.
While at a scientific conference on remote sensing to present results from the Galileo Mission she had been working on, she attended a lecture by another group of scientists who had used satellite imagery to examine ancient waterways in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. They were attempting solve the mystery of the disappearance of the Maya civilization, which they suspected had something to do with their water supply.
These scientists had zeroed-in on the long known but little understood subsurface formations known as cenotes, the large, often naturally occurring underground pools of water that dot the Yucatán peninsula and other regions of the world. While examining remote satellite images, they noticed an almost perfectly semi-circular pattern of cenotes over a swath of land hundreds square miles in area – and it left them somewhat dumbfounded. Sitting in the audience, Dr. Ocampo immediately had a pretty good idea about what caused that pattern.
“I had been working a lot with Eugene Shoemaker, the father of impact craters, and so impact craters were on my brain,” she recalls. She was also keenly aware that the hunt was on in the geology and paleontology communities for an impact crater that corroborated the mounting evidence that an asteroid slammed into the earth 66 million years ago and caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction that killed at 75% of all species at the time, including the dinosaurs. In an instant, the light bulb turned on in Dr. Ocampo’s head.
She approached the scientists immediately after they concluded their lecture to discuss her reaction to their findings, and a collaboration ensued from there. Over the following months, Dr. Ocampo and her team utilized a combination of geophysical data from the Mexican Petroleum Institute and remote sensing data from satellites. Their effort culminated in the discovery of the exact location and composition of the Chicxulub impact crater. A Later expedition she led in Beliz uncovered the only known surface exposures of the closest ejecta blanket from the Chicxulub impact. This and other subsequent findings around the world have all but confirmed Chicxulub as the impact site for the asteroid that caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction – perhaps the most famous smoking gun in the history of our planet.
As remarkable as her accomplishments have been, Dr. Ocampo’s dreams extend far beyond her own career. She hopes to ignite the dreams of millions of people in her home continent to one day join humanity’s exploration of the cosmos.
“There is a group of us scientists and engineers in NASA, including astronauts like Franklin Chang-Diaz [past Engineer of the Year and HENAAC Hall of Fame Member], who have for a long time shared a dream that space exploration is for everyone on the planet” she said. “And since our home, Latin America, has lagged behind, we started this informal group back in the 80s to get more people from our region excited and educated about space.”
These informal conversations and ambitions led to the formation of the Space Conference of the Americas, first held in 1990 in San Jose, Costa Rica. The aim of this conference, which was developed in conjunction with the United Nations, was to encourage cooperation in the areas of science and technology for peaceful uses of space among the Pan-American countries. Dr. Ocampo hopes that these and other initiatives will one day lead to a Latin American Space Agency modeled on the European Space Agency, where she worked for a few years while pursuing her Ph.D. in the Netherlands precisely to learn how a multi-national operation on that scale worked.
She’s been instrumental to multiple organizations throughout her career, both here in the United States and in Latin America. Dr. Ocampo co-organized and was the leader behind the largest educational activity promoted by UNESCO to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. The Aventura Espacial event took place in Barranquilla, Colombia, the city of her birth, where 2000 teachers and 24000 youngsters from 140 Colombian schools participated during 3 days of various educational activities aimed at promoting STEM and motivating students to get involved with science.
Despite these and other ambitious goals, Dr. Ocampo still manages to bring the same wondrous curiosity that moved her to marvel at the stars as a little girl to her work. All these years later, her faith in science and humanity remains unshakeable.
“I feel at home in the entire world of science because science does not have any type of limitations. Our imagination provides the tools to go beyond what we may have expected, to try to understand things that humanity hasn’t understood before.”
-By Peter Mellado