Abigail Fraeman

Deputy Project Scientist


Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, MD

Yale University

B.S. with a double major in Geology & Geophysics and Physics

Washington University in St. Louis

Masters, A.M. in Earth & Planetary Sciences

Washington University in St. Louis

Ph.D. in Earth & Planetary Sciences

Where are you from?

I’m from Olney, Maryland.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

My dad brought home a very small telescope when I was in the third grade. When I was able to see the rings of Saturn with my own eyes from my backyard, I was completely hooked on space!

How did you end up working in the space program?

I was able to come to JPL as a high school student the night that NASA's Opportunity rover landed as a participant in the Planetary Society’s Red Rover Goes to Mars student astronaut program. Being in the room with a bunch of scientists when Opportunity’s first images arrived on Earth inspired me to pursue a specific career path in planetary science. I stuck to that dream by studying physics and geology as an undergraduate at Yale University, and then went on to grad school at Washington University in St. Louis, where I got a Ph.D. in planetary science working with Professor Ray Arvidson. Professor Arvidson was the deputy principal investigator of the Opportunity rover and often encourages students to become involved in tactical rover operations in addition to their research.

After grad school, I went to Caltech for a postdoctoral fellowship to work with another Mars rover team member, Bethany Ehlmann. I then interviewed at JPL, where I was offered a permanent position as a research scientist to continue to study Mars and work on current (and future) Mars missions.

Who inspired you?

Several exceptional science and computer science teachers from my days at Takoma Park Middle School and Montgomery Blair High school immediately come to mind. Ms. Moran, Mr. DeGasperis, Ms. Matthews, Mr. Donaldson, Dr. Rock, Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Ostrander, Ms. Dvorsky, Mr. Heidler, Ms. Counihan, Ms. Bishop, Ms. Dyas, Mr. Stein... these are just some of many great teachers I was fortunate to learn from who come to mind.

I also had three very important mentors while I was in high school – Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society gave me my very first lessons in planetary science and showed me how awesome a career in this field could be. Nader Haghighipour and K.E. Saavik Ford were postdocs at the Carnegie Institute in Washington DC (now at University Hawaii-Manao and City University of New York) and mentored me in a research project the summer before my senior year of high school. They were the first to show me what is was like to have a research career, and I learned so much from them.

What does your job entail?

I spend a lot of my time helping to run the two rovers currently on Mars: Opportunity and Curiosity. I work with the rest of the science team to select interesting science targets to study and I analyze the results to improve our understanding of the history of Mars. I also do research using data from Mars orbiters. When I’m not backseat-driving rovers, I write papers, work with students, attend conferences, and write proposals for future research.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

Becoming deputy project scientist for the Opportunity rover, the same mission that inspired me to become a planetary scientist over 14 years ago.

What are you looking forward to in your career?

All of the things we will learn about the solar system in the next 30 years!

What advice would you give someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions about things that interest you.

What do you do for fun?

I love to travel, cook, and explore all of the wonderful things to do in the city of Los Angeles.

What's your favorite space image?

Opportunity's landing panorama of Eagle Crater. It shows the view Opportunity saw when she first landed on Mars. The smooth, dark plains of Meridiani and in-place bedrock exposed in the wall of Eagle crater were extremely different from images of the surface of Mars returned at that time by previous rovers and landers, and this image inspired me to study planetary science.

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.