People: Amber Butcher
Amber Butcher

Amber aboard a flight with her mentor Lori Fenton on the way to visit Kelso Dunes, a terrestrial analog of the Martian dunes she studied in her SETI research project


Amber is a geology major who applied to the SETI program in order to study other planets of our solar system. She spent the summer of 2010 studying the geomorphology of Martian dunes with Dr. Lori Fenton of the SETI Institute. This is her story.

Since I was a child, I have always been fascinated by the Earth and its processes. While others may visit one of our country’s amazing National Parks and be awestruck by the plant or animal life, I just found myself wondering about the “rocks”. I always wondered what made this landscape so different from that near my home. This is where my love of geology began. I am fascinated by all aspects of geology, but have found a particular interest in geophysics. After graduating from Cal Poly Pomona, I plan to apply to graduate school. I still am unsure of what I would like my emphasis to be, but am leaning toward geophysics. I hope to eventually teach at the college level.


Martian gullies

Gullying on a Martian dune, one of many morphological features observed and cataloged as part of Amber’s research

Last winter, a professor suggested that I apply for the SETI REU program. When visiting the website to apply, I saw “Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in Astrobiology at the SETI Institute”. "Astrobiology?” I thought, “But I'm a geology major.” Upon review of the research projects, I saw several related to geology, geophysics, and geochemistry. I sent in my application and was happily surprised when I found out that I was selected.

My project was an investigation of sand dunes on Mars. Since terrestrial dunes provide us with information on sediment supply, wind regimes and weather; we hoped to gain the same types of information from the Martian dunes. I spent a lot of time sorting through high resolution images of Mars surface, cataloging and classifying the dunes and their morphological features, and then I looked for latitudinal trends. I had no idea how interesting the Martian surface is. When I chose geology as my major, it honestly never occurred to me to transfer my knowledge and skills to the investigation of the surface of another planet.

Amber listening

Amber pretending to be Jodie Foster in the movie Contact

SETI’s internship is 10 ten weeks, and includes a research project with a mentor, a week long trip to Lassen National Park and the Allen Telescope Array at Hat Creek, and many talks by professionals and peers. I suppose that it’s no surprise that I was thrilled about going to Lassen, but I was pleasantly surprised by my experience at Hat Creek. I had never visited a telescope array before, and knew very little about radio astronomy. It was an amazing experience. Many of the talks were about physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry. Some of which I know very little about. Regardless of that fact, I was able to see a beautiful harmony between the different fields of study and found myself inspired to take a more interdisciplinary approach to my education.
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