James Wray | Co-Investigator
Where did you grow up?
In the central New Jersey suburbs, specifically Princeton Junction, which is literally where you change trains to go to Princeton.
How did you get interested in space exploration?
In high school I wanted to be an astronaut, because they seemed like the coolest people in the world. Then the summer after I graduated, we took a family vacation to the Outer Banks of NC, where the night sky is spectacularly dark. Armed with binoculars and a Sky & Telescope, I stayed up all night “discovering” phenomena that I needed to learn more about as soon as possible. I started asking professors for space-related research opportunities in my first week at college, and they generously obliged.
What’s your educational background?
I majored in Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton, earning my Bachelor’s degree in 2006, along with a minor in Engineering Physics so I could understand scientific instrumentation a little better. I then moved to Cornell University to work with Mars Exploration Rover science team leader Steve Squyres, finishing with a Ph.D. in 2010. That degree is also in Astronomy, but really I was doing geology on Mars.
What are your hobbies?
Science!! I also enjoy travel (which is useful in this business), reading all kinds of fiction when I can, and watching football.
What’s your job on CRISM?
I contribute to the targeting and analysis of images, identifying minerals based on their spectra and mapping their distribution to gain new insights into how the Martian environment varied over time and space. I am also a Co-Investigator on MRO’s high-resolution camera (HiRISE), so I like finding scientifically useful ways to combine data from the two instruments.
What excites you about exploring Mars?
I want to know where life exists across the universe. Earth has life, and—in most respects—Mars is the most Earth-like place we know. It’s also easier to visit than other places we might want to look, in our solar system or beyond. With new data streaming back daily from multiple points around Mars, any day could be the day when we find the key clue that leads to discovery of alien life. It is thrilling to be a part of the search.
What advice would you give to someone like you who wants to get involved in space exploration?
Find people who are doing space exploration that excites you (the internet is great for this) and contact them! Almost everyone I’ve met in any facet of this field loves his/her job, and is eager to share it with anyone who is interested. I have built my career so far through repeatedly (1) having just enough courage to approach someone doing something amazing, and ask if I could help in some way; and (2) putting in my very best effort after they (almost always) said yes. Putting in the effort comes naturally when you follow your curiosity.