Mark Williamson, BS in Astrobiology, 2016

Mark stands from a balcony with the ASU campus and A mountain in the background.

When Professor Arjun Heimsath agreed to have recent SESE alumni Mark Williamson attend this Fall’s Camp SESE, Arjun assumed Mark would be attending to network with former professors and to mentor incoming students on the SESE experience. Never in a million years did he think he would be greeting Mark with not one, but TWO Nalgene water bottles filled to the brim with spare change to donate back to Camp SESE.

Our students truly never cease to amazed us and Mark is no exception! Though Mark may have graduated from the School of Earth and Space Exploration in May 2016, his continued connection, dedication and generosity towards the SESE community has impressed us all! We were lucky enough to “sit down” with Mark to ask him a few questions about his unique path to Astrobiology and subsequent experience with SESE. Here’s what Mark had to say:

SESE: What was your "aha" moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Williamson: My “aha” moment was probably when I was sitting outside one summer night after my sophomore year of high school, looking at the stars, and I started to question and wonder and my curiosity took over. I went online and researched all the different things about stars, how they work, the different types, and then I got to the planets that could be orbiting them, and I instantly knew that I wanted to be a part of the race to find alien life, and realized astrobiology as my passion. I narrowed my attention towards icy moons of the outer solar system once I realized that we will never be able to make in situ observations of these exoplanets in our lifetime. After that summer I attended a community college/high school hybrid to fast-track my college education during my last two years of high school, and as a result I graduated from ASU at the age of 20.

SESE: What year did you graduate, what did you ultimately earn your degree in, and what made you choose ASU?

Williamson: I graduated from ASU and SESE in May of 2016, with my BS in astrobiology. After researching all of the programs funded by NASA’s NAI grants, I chose ASU because forums and reviews praised SESE professors as being some of the best in the nation, which is really an understatement!

SESE: Is there a particular faculty member at ASU who was influential and in what way?

Williamson: Jack Farmer was a really influential person during my ASU career. I took his SESE 311: Essentials of Astrobiology course, and got to be the leader of a project that outlined a mission to explore the oceans of the icy moon Europa with a submarine. It made me do research into different fields of astrobiology that operate in the field and test their equipment at environmentally analogous locations on Earth, something I am enthralled with today. Dr. Farmer also pointed me towards the University of Washington for graduate school, where I plan to apply for the 2017 school year.

Tom Sharp, my Space Grant Mentor and Mineralogy professor, was also a huge influence. He gave me the confidence and support I needed to succeed in the Space Grant program, which I have continued to build on for grad school. He gave me a lot of helpful guidance at ASU, and really helped me succeed during my senior year.

SESE: What advice do you have for students who may be following your path?

Williamson: Astrobiology is a specific enough field that people who are in it probably know pretty well what they want to do, or at least well enough for this stage in their life. Having astrobiology as my major made my career at ASU so much fun, every class I took was one I enjoyed. Just try to make your experiences while you’re here, because four years goes by so much faster than you want it to. Just smell the flowers a little along the way.

SESE: What's something you learned while at ASU - in the classroom or otherwise - that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Williamson: I took a couple sustainability courses, the most notable of which would probably be CEE 400: Earth Systems Engineering and Management. This course opened my eyes as to what sustainability is, what it means to be truly sustainable, and all of the practices that could be changed to convert companies or entire regions to being sustainable. I was also surprised to see how sustainably-minded ASU is, and how much ASU is doing to try to promote sustainable thinking around campus. I feel that this course was extremely eye-opening, highlighting the ways we can give humanity a sustainable future.

SESE: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

Williamson: There are a few spots on campus that were really fun to hang out at. There was the crater carpet on the third floor of ISTB4, you could always find somebody you knew up there and it was a really awesome work environment, as long as you didn’t mind talking with friends intermittently as well. If I really wanted to hunker down and do work on campus, I would go to Noble Library. It’s a lot less cluttered than Hayden, and if you’re lucky you can get one of those cubicles overlooking the library floor and people watch… I mean…. Do homework… If I ever wanted to feel isolated and seclude myself somewhere, I would go to the SkySpace Square right next to ISTB4 and sit down for a while; at night the roof lights up different colors and it’s a great place to sit and sort through thoughts and emotions when you need to. The Arboretum on the north side of campus behind the Wells Fargo Arena is also a great place for doing that.

SESE: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

Williamson: To be completely honest, problems in the world today are big, and that requires big money to do any real sort of change, and 40 million dollars won’t go too far, even with any one single cause…but with that money, I would probably try to invest it in different clean, renewable energies in applicable regions, such as solar in the sun belt, wind in the wind belt, and geothermal where applicable. I might also try to invest a portion of it into education for sustainable living in high schools, because the next generation needs to start thinking about these issues if we are going to effectively combat it.