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When 12-year-old Clara Ma entered a competition in 2008 to name the next Mars Rover, she had no idea where it could take her.

Inspire your students to follow in Clara’s footsteps and get involved in STEM competitions, set high expectations and believe in themselves; they never know where it could take them.

Clara Ma, winner of the contest to name NASA’s Curiosity rover, in 2009 with an engineering model of the rover (left) and as a graduate student in 2019 (right). Credit: Left: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left); right: Clara Ma

Meet Clara

In 2008, Ma was a 12-year-old sixth-grader in a Kansas City suburb and was just starting to develop an interest in science. She had recently entered her first science fair and watched a movie about a journey from Earth to the far reaches of the universe. As she looked up at the night sky above Lenexa, Kansas, Ma’s head practically exploded thinking about the mysteries of the cosmos. So, when Ma read a magazine article about NASA’s essay contest to name the next Mars rover, she knew precisely which name to propose: “Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives,” Ma wrote in her short essay. “We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder.”

She won the contest; the rover Curiosity launched in 2011 and is hard at work today looking into whether ancient Mars ever had the right environmental conditions to support life.

“The experience of naming the rover and everything that came with it changed my life,” Ma said recently. One key part of the experience was getting to speak with so many NASA scientists and engineers of different backgrounds; several of them became longtime mentors.

“It was so inspiring to meet people who were asking questions about the world and the universe for a living,” she said. “It made me realise that was something I could do with my life: I could be a scientist, too.”

Where is she now?

Ma graduated earlier this year with a degree in geophysics from Yale University. Her coursework and research focused in particular on how Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and climate interact with one another. She is completing a master’s degree in science, technology and environmental policy at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

“Thinking about sending a robot to another planet made me realise how special and fragile life is on Earth,” she said. “Space is incredibly vast. There are trillions and trillions of planets out there. And yet we’re still the only place that we know of where life exists. I realised that studying the Earth was the most important thing I could do.”

Winning the naming contest also gave her the confidence to tackle broad questions and reach beyond the world she knew.

About the rovers

Every rover on Mars has been named by a student – starting with the suitcase-size Sojourner rover that landed in 1997. The soon-to-be-renamed Mars 2020 rover will launch in July or August 2020. Equipped with a new suite of scientific instruments, the rover aims to build upon Curiosity’s discoveries about how Mars was habitable in the past. Mars 2020 will search for signs of past microbial life, characterise the planet’s climate and geology and collect samples for future return to Earth.

In this image, engineers test cameras on the top of the Mars 2020 rover’s mast and front chassis. The image was taken on July 23, 2019, in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility’s High Bay 1 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars 2020 is also part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages Mars 2020 rover development and the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which includes Curiosity, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for Mars 2020 launch management.

How to get involved

Although NASA’s current competition is only open to K-12 students in the U.S., there are still plenty of other ways to get involved with STEM professionals.

The Royal Institution of Australia asks student questions to STEM professionals in events such as In Class With. During these events, popular scientists get put on the spot to answer challenging science and career questions sent in from students all around the country.

Republished from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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