Student Spotlight: Megan Barrington

Megan Barrington

November 20, 2023

Megan Barrington is a doctoral candidate in geological sciences with a concentration in planetary geology from Brownwood, Texas. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Colgate University and now studies how weathering and erosion affect the evolution of planetary surfaces under the guidance of Alexander Hayes at Cornell.

What is your area of research and why is it important?

I study how weathering and erosion affect the evolution of planetary surfaces as small as comets to as large as Mars. More specifically, part of my research focuses on how comet surfaces evolve as they get close to the sun. Comets are icy and rocky bodies composed of materials that formed when the solar system was taking shape. These materials are ancient, much less altered from that initial composition than materials that have spent more time close to the sun. Since comets are enriched in water ice as well as some of the building blocks of life on Earth, they pose a fantastic opportunity to learn about how organics and water may have arrived on the Earth, and how life really came about. This part of my research focuses on how comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s surface changed in response to its perihelion approach in August 2015. Since future missions aim to collect a sample from the surface of a comet, maybe even 67P, this work helps us to understand the most scientifically interesting, icy locations for sample collection.

The second focus of my research will help us to provide context to samples returned from Jezero Crater’s crater floor, on Mars. We have collected a breadth of images in 12 different wavelength ranges from the visible to the near-infrared on Mars using an instrument called Mastcam-Z. I use the Mastcam-Z Analog Spectral Imager (MASI), a field instrument built to behave as much like Mastcam-Z as possible, to do field research that provides ground truth to observations we collect with Mastcam-Z on Mars. The primary goal of this work is to determine what effects weathering may have on the amount of light reflected from rocks in Jezero Crater in each of the 12 wavelength ranges. These reflectance values can tell us about the composition of the rock, but only what you can see at the surface. Therefore, describing how that surface may have been altered over time is an important step to understanding what to expect from the returned samples from Jezero’s crater floor.

What are the larger implications of this research?

Our desire to return samples from both Mars and comets to the Earth attempts to answer the same fundamental question of our origins and belonging in the cosmos. Since life on Earth is the only kind we’ve ever known, our origins may hold clues to the existence of life elsewhere, and vice versa. Sample return missions from Mars may provide evidence of the existence of past life on the red planet, whereas samples from comets may hint at how life ever arose on Earth in the first place. 

What branch of the military did you serve in?

I served in the U. S. Army, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Band as a flute player, vocalist, and soldier.

How has your military background influenced your experience at Cornell?

My experience as a service member was a challenging time in my life that forced me to grow in ways that I never anticipated. Overall, I stress less about the small things and have a great deal of perspective regarding the problems I face from day-to-day. I’m grateful for the chance to be doing what I do now, knowing that I’ve faced more tangible stressors in the past.

President Pollack has designated this academic year’s theme as freedom of expression. What does freedom of expression mean to you?

Freedom of expression is interesting. I wish everyone had that freedom without the threat of violence looming close by. I wonder if we’ll ever live in a world where that freedom is available to all. I certainly hope so. 

What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research or scholarship?

I’ve maintained a passion for music that won’t be going anywhere soon. My family might argue that I sing too often or too loudly. I also enjoy long distance running, and spending family time with my husband and son. 

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

I chose to pursue my degree at Cornell because I felt like I belonged when I met my future fellow researchers. The kindness that each of my peers extended to me made my decision very easy.