A CTE Success Story Out of This World

Submitted by Tony York

I was recently told of an article that was published in Nature, written by lead author Britney Schmidt, a former FFA State Officer from Flowing Wells High School. The excitement caused by the article was quite wide spread across the internet as a new theory helps to explain “chaos terrains”, tips of subsurface lakes that well up and warm the icy surface located on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. The implications of such a discovery includes the possibility of biological life and has the scientific community abuzz with discussion. While no doubt busy with her continued research and the attention from recent publicity, Britney was kind enough to discuss some of her views and answer a few questions on her success and her path through Career and Technical Education.

Q: How long have you been working in the field of geophysics and space physics?

A: Basically, I am a planetary scientist. I got my BS in physics in 2005 from U of A and my PhD from UCLA in 2010, so I’ve been involved since 2001 but actually out of school for the last year and a half. During my undergrad and PhD work though I was an active researcher.


Q: Have you always wanted to do something in this area?

A: I’ve always been interested in the night sky and space. Being in Arizona was a big part of that, because I could see the Milky Way from my backyard since I was a small child.


Q: In high school you were in the FFA and also an Arizona State FFA Officer. Would you say that being in this student organization helped prepare you at all for your career?

A: Definitely! I learned public speaking and interview skills in the FFA that have helped me to communicate about science with others. 


Q: Looking back upon your own education would you say that Career Technical Education was helpful in getting you where you are today?

A: I would definitely say so. Beyond giving me a place to be active in school and to learn new things, CTE/FFA helped me hone communication skills and gave me self confidence that has played a major role in my career thus far.


Q: Do you have any advice for students that are now beginning to look forward and plan for their education and careers?

A: I think it’s critical for students to take initiative and to be thoughtful about where they want to head. All too often people just pick a direction or course of study and just stick to it, never questioning whether it really is the right direction for them. Taking some time to think about yourself and what is important to you, where you want to be, the kinds of things you want to do and the kinds of people you would like to meet and work with helps you gain perspective on your path forward. I entered college studying Agriculture and English, but I found I needed to be answering different questions. I don’t think I would be where I am today or as happy with my directions if I hadn’t taken the time to think and to question myself. Sometimes being uncomfortable is a good thing–it means you aren’t taking the easy way out. 


Q: I’ve noticed quite a few news websites have snippets of information on your article. When writing it and having it published with the Nature journal did you expect this much interest and discussion?

A: Oh my gosh, not at all! It was such a surprise to have received such support for our work. When we were working on the paper and developing the ideas, we thought we were really on to something. We had hoped to give our community some new perspective and new theories to work on, and hoped it would be well received. To have our paper covered so widely and to have received so many emails with questions and excitement has been a real honor. I’m just thrilled. 


Q: So what happens now with your research?

A: Well, now we go back to the grindstone and test our model and apply it to more observations. In addition, I am spending some time trying to understand just what these conclusions imply for the habitability of Europa. The reason many of my colleagues and I study Europa is because of the potential that we might one day find life there. It’s a huge question for humanity, and something very important to me. Hopefully, we can figure out how Europa really works, and then motivate a mission to go back and test whether Europa really is habitable, and even better, if life exists there. Our work is a small piece of the puzzle, but I hope the whole picture might be visible some day soon.


Congratulations Britney and thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions!