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Ellen Czaplinski

Ellen Czaplinski

Graduate Student/ Research Assistant

University of Arkansas

"I was the most afraid of leaving the place I called home for 4 years, and figuring out where I would fit within my field. For anyone who has similar fears, I would encourage you to face them with confidence and trust that your time spent at Purdue has prepared you well for the challenges ahead. Figure out what you are passionate about and what makes you happy and do everything you can to head down that path."

What was your major/minor at Purdue and when did you graduate?

I was in the first class of Planetary Science majors and graduated in May 2016.

What was your most compelling class and why?

Planetary Geology was the most compelling class at Purdue. After switching my major a few times, I finally decided on Planetary Science, and I took Planetary Geology the first semester I was a Planetary Science major. The professors at the time, Briony Horgan and Andy Freed, are extremely knowledgeable in the subject and I learned so many fascinating things like impact cratering processes and planetary geomorphology.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently studying Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system, has an atmosphere similar to Earth’s (predominantly nitrogen), and is the only other planetary body in our solar system with liquids on its surface. However, Titan is extremely cold with a surface temperature of ~94 K (-290 F)! This means that compounds that are gases on Earth (methane or ethane) are liquids on Titan’s surface. These hydrocarbon liquids accumulate to form lakes and seas at Titan’s north and south poles, making Titan the only other body in our solar system with liquids on the surface. The lakes and seas evolve over time by processes like evaporation, and sometimes leave behind other minor hydrocarbon compounds, which are currently unknown.

By using an experimental chamber, I simulate Titan’s surface temperature (90-94 K) and pressure (1.5 bar) to recreate hydrocarbon samples of Titan’s lakes so they can be studied in the lab. Specifically, I use a Fourier-Transform Infrared (FTIR) Spectrometer to analyze the reflectance properties of my samples and determine if any new phases might occur during the evaporation process.  

What drove you to pursue your current career path?

I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Arkansas. I have always wanted to work for NASA researching planetary bodies and planning spacecraft missions, and getting a Ph.D. in my field is the next step towards that. I also aspire to be an astronaut, and having several years of professional experience is required for the Astronaut Candidate Program.

Did you pursue internships/co-ops, research experiences, volunteer, or join student organizations while you attended Purdue?

I was heavily involved with undergraduate research through the EAPS department. I worked with Dr. Briony Horgan for about 3 years researching the morphology of Martian dunes and classifying various features on them. Doing this research project allowed me to attend and present my research at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Houston, one of the largest conferences for planetary science, as a senior. I actually met and interviewed with my graduate research advisor at my first LPSC. As a graduate student, I still attend this conference every year and I am thankful I was able to attend as an undergraduate.

Additionally, I marched snare drum in the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band and played percussion in the Wind Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble for 3 years while at Purdue. Being involved with this organization really made me feel at home on campus, and allowed me to build up a great community of friends and support. Although being involved with band has not explicitly helped me in the job market or getting into grad school, the hard work and self-motivation required is implicitly expressed in my graduate studies and research.

Are there any special accomplishments you've achieved after college that you might not have been able to do without your college experiences?

The field of planetary science is an incredibly interdisciplinary one. I went from studying geology on Mars in my undergraduate to studying the chemistry of Titan’s lakes in grad school. When I was at Purdue I had the opportunity to take a class called spacecraft design where I was part of the science team. This class has helped shape my future tremendously. I called on experiences from this class when I applied to internships at both the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), both of which were heavily centered around spacecraft mission design. I am so thankful I had the unique opportunity of taking that class in my undergrad, as it opened my eyes to mission design - something I am very passionate about and would like to continue pursuing throughout my career.

I have also had the opportunity of presenting my research in the form of a talk at numerous planetary science conferences and workshops, both large and small. I was also the runner-up for a 3 Minute Thesis competition I participated in at the University of Arkansas. Both styles of presentations were taught in my Science Writing and Presentation class at Purdue, which prepared me extremely well for science communication. This is one of the most important skills I learned at Purdue.

What advice would you give to prospective or current Purdue students about how to make the best use of what Purdue offers?

Purdue is one of the best universities out there with classes, majors, and extracurriculars for everyone. Find what you are passionate about, whether it be engineering, science, music, teaching, volunteering, or something else and use that passion to fuel your future. What do you imagine yourself doing for the next 40+ years of your life? I guarantee Purdue has an answer for you – be bold and go find it!

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