Follow this link to skip to the main content
National Aeronautics and Space Administration vertical gray line
+ NASA Homepage
NASA's Mars Exploration Program
+ Mars Home
Zip Code Mars
Zip Code Mars Contribution
horizontal gray line

Photo of Dawn Sumner
   Dawn Sumner

What is unique about your job?

content image for personal reflections section
For me, science is a fun adventure. As a scientist, I get to ask difficult questions and try to answer them by piecing clues together, much like a detective works to find out who-dunnit. I chose to study geology because the actual work involves hiking, making observations, and trying to understand the processes that formed the rocks using all sorts of information from biology, physics and chemistry. Rock-forming processes are complex enough that we often have to think creatively and stretch our minds to find answers. This is particularly true when we ask questions about another planet like Mars - we do not have many clues, so when we get new information, it is very fun and exciting to see how it changes our old ideas. They change frequently!

When you were in elementary school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was in grade school, I did not really know much about what people did when they grew up. I saw my mother who stayed home sometimes and worked in a bank sometimes. Being a mother seemed better than working in a bank. I saw my father who studied physics, but ran a climbing equipment store and went into the mountains a lot. That seemed pretty good. As I got older, I learned about more jobs and thought I might do a lot of different things. It never occurred to me to be a scientist, maybe because I did not know anyone who made a living as a scientist. Once I took some science classes with cool experiments, I became more interested in science and engineering. In high school, I went to a weekend program designed to encourage women to study engineering. Within the first few hours, I knew I did not want to be an engineer - I did not find the questions interesting, although many of the other girls did. I wanted to ask and answer big, vague questions like, “How did this rock form?”, not questions like, “How do you design an instrument arm so it can put a microscope against a rock?”. I am REALLY glad there are excellent engineers who like to answer the second type of question, because I can not find any clues to answer my questions if I do not have the right equipment. Each person looks for something they enjoy, something they are good at, and something that can earn them a living. The lucky people, like me, discover that special career that is all three.

What excites you about Mars or about space exploration?

My main scientific interests focus on how bacteria leave “footprints” in rocks. Many bacteria leave chemical clues in minerals that let you know that they were once there. They are something like fossils, but they tend to be microscopic and require special instruments to find. We are sending some of those instruments to Mars. Will we find microbial footprints? I really do not know, but finding life elsewhere in the universe would be one of the most important discoveries ever. “Is there life anywhere beyond Earth?” is the biggest question around, and as a Mars scientist, I get to help find clues to its answer.

Dawn Sumner:
  Background Information
  Contributions to Mars Exploration
  Personal Reflections