On a hot sunny day in the deserts of New Mexico, Alice Baldridge stood on the edge of a rock one morning under the late April sky and took scientists through simulation after simulation in a volcanic crater to learn the history of the site.
The geologist and educator lives to tell stories — but not as a writer. Her research mainly focuses on understanding the past and current processes that have shaped planets and comparing laboratory, field and remote spectroscopic data to solve various problems in planetary science.
Growing up, Baldridge could always be found outdoors discovering nature. Every summer she made sure to be a part of a summer camp near Yosemite National Park, a treat she couldn’t wait to attend every year. Along with camp, she was also a Girl Scout and started to take an interest in astronomy. You could say she was following her father’s footsteps, as he was an amateur astronomer, and the two would spend hours looking at the stars through a telescope in her backyard.
Following the astronomy track, she went on to take science courses at the University of California Santa Cruz, including multiple geology classes as electives.
“I realized that really the part of astronomy that I was interested in was not the pulsars, quasars and baby black holes, but the planets and understanding what’s going on on other planets,” Baldridge said. “In order to understand the planets, you have to understand Earth and the processes that are happening here on Earth, so that’s why I switched to geology.”
During her time at the University of California Santa Cruz, she studied Earth science and focused on the high pressure of salty solutions as applied to the icy moons of Jupiter. She felt that she was given the space to combine her interests in planets with geology and ran with it.
Following her bachelor’s degree, she went on to receive her master’s at Arizona State University where she had the opportunity to experience field work — the direct observation and investigation of rocks and rock materials in their natural environment. As part of her master’s thesis, she spent time in Death Valley, California and used the site as a remote sensing analog site for ancient aqueous environments on Mars.
Baldridge said her main mission during the trip was to find evidence that there was once standing waters on Mars and then use the salts and minerals found to understand both the history of the water and what kinds of rocks those materials interacted with.
She hopes to always be involved in field work and wants to travel to new sites to help future research. She has also conducted field work across the world including the Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park, the Sand Dunes of the Western U.S. and the Hot Springs and glacial environments of Iceland.
“Getting outside and exploring the Earth and being able to tell those stories in an engaging way — if that’s what I am remembered for, that will be like gold,” she said.
Baldridge finds her way of giving back through teaching. While getting her master’s, she began teaching at a community college in Arizona and genuinely enjoyed interacting with students and getting them excited about science and geology. After she received her PhD in geology from Arizona State University, Baldridge began to teach and be involved in education to have that balance in her life regarding gaining and sharing her knowledge of Earth and planetary science.
“I think that I'm really good at engaging students in the classroom, getting them to learn by doing and coming up with cool activities and labs for them to do,” she said. “And I see how much that lights them up.”
She is currently an associate professor of geology and director of Environmental and Earth Sciences at St. Mary’s College of California, where she is training a new generation of naturalists to appreciate the world around them.
In 2019, she won a grant that would help her continue doing field work and share the experience with the younger generation. She was chosen to investigate space science and exploration as a part of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. Serving as a co-investigator on the Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for the Science and Exploration 2 (RISE2) research team, Baldridge brought two undergraduates to New Mexico to conduct fieldwork at the Potrillo Volcanic Field.
“I was so excited because it meant I got to go back in the field, which I love doing and it’s really why geology started to appeal to me,” Baldridge said. “It also meant I could get back into my research and in a large group where there are so many different scientists and engineers doing so many different things. It’s great for building future collaborations.”
After winning the NASA grant, she knew the main purpose for her team would be to help pave the way for humans to safely return to the Moon and explore, and then get back safely to Earth.
During her time in New Mexico, she had several responsibilities, but she mostly enjoyed the traverses she conducted that simulated Extravehicular Activities (EVA), otherwise known as spacewalks. She spent hours walking scientists through these traverses and helped them make observations about various sites including information on layers, sediments and the overall environment. Her goal for the data collected was to be able to tell a story and find out whether there was ever a change in environment.
“We as scientists often make things more complicated and we're asking questions that might be intimidating or might encourage them to do more interpretation,” Baldridge said. “And really, we need to ask them questions that inspire them to make the observations that we need to make the interpretations.”
After returning from the trip, Baldridge will focus on analyzing her findings in the labs of Brousseau Hall at St. Mary’s College over the next five years.
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