Alumni Action: Understanding the Planet Mars on Earth – Catching Up with Brian Hynek

Brian HynekBrian Hynek (B.A. '98) graduated from UNI with a Bachelor of Arts in all sciences teaching, earth science teaching and earth science. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, at the University of Colorado-Boulder. 

What have you been doing since leaving UNI?

I put my newly learned effective teaching strategies to work as a high school teacher of physics and chemistry in San Antonio, Texas. I knew I wanted to go to grad school to become a planetary scientist so after a year I headed to Washington University in St. Louis for my Ph.D. training. There I worked on mapping a candidate landing site on Mars that was eventually visited by NASA's Opportunity Rover in 2004. Although the mission was planned for only 90 days, it has lasted six years and is still going strong.

After graduate school, I headed west to a postdoctoral position in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. I eventually became a member of the research faculty at CU and then a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences.

My research at CU has focused on understanding the history of water on the planet Mars and what that means for the possibility of past or even present life there. I go about this in a number of ways. First, I study the history of water on Mars by assessing the ancient dried-up river valleys and relic deltas to address the early climate of Mars. New data indicate that Mars must have had an active hydrologic cycle like Earth's and maybe even a large ocean. Second, I conduct laboratory experiments and modeling to study the processes that happened on early Mars, including hydrothermal processes that have been documented by Opportunity and its companion rover. My final large research focus is studying environments on Earth that are similar to those on early Mars to better understand its history. This includes scaling active volcanoes in Central America to sample their geology and microbiology. 

I have worked with NASA on a number of projects, including field tests of the Lunar Electric Rover that will head to the moon in the 2020s. The rover holds a two-astronaut crew, and I help in the "mission control room" by planning the rover traverses and assessing the scientific results. I also recently participated with NASA's Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program. Eight of us spent 50 days camping on the ice, self-supported and 300 miles from the South Pole. It was a chilly but amazing trip, and we collected over 1,000 meteorites for future study, including some from the moon and Mars.
When I'm not gallivanting around the globe in the name of science, I have filled the rest of my time during the last eight years by teaching classes and mentoring graduate students at the University of Colorado. The university is a great environment, and you can't beat the scenery and recreational opportunities. Where else can you go rock climbing, kayaking or skiing on your way home from work?!

How did your CNS degree contribute to your achievements?

Learning the fundamentals in earth science, physics, chemistry and biology at UNI prepared me well for a career in planetary sciences, where the planet must be considered as an integrated system. I conducted undergraduate research in earth sciences, as well as physics, and that gave me an advantage in graduate school. Professors Jim Walters, Siobahn Morgan, Tim Cooney (all in earth science) and Roy Unruh (physics) provided a personalized experience that is hard to get at larger institutions.

What do you hope to achieve in the future, career-wise?

My future research will continue to focus on Mars and Earth, but will be expanded to the moon and Mercury as we get new data from current missions in the next couple years. It's an exciting time to be a planetary scientist!