If the faces in the group photos lining Ray Arvidson’s office don’t look familiar right now, they will someday. These are the Pathfinder Alumni—an elite group of academically gifted students who have explored environmental sustainability as part of a four-year learning experience they will never forget.
The analytical and technical skills honed during their educational odyssey enable the Pathfinders to chart new territory in a variety of industries. Graduates of the program include physicians and lawyers, planetary scientists and computer engineers. They are Rhodes, Fulbright, Marshall and Hertz Scholars who teach at world-renowned universities, and who work throughout the world in locations ranging from Finland to Hong Kong to the White House.
The Pathfinder Program is directed by Professor Raymond Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, who also works as a NASA researcher. Recently he’s been advising NASA engineers on how to navigate a rover called Curiosity across unexplored Martian terrain…while providing students with the skills and knowledge to lead future space exploration.
Drawing on his knowledge as a planetary geologist, Arvidson and his students spend spring breaks in the Mojave Desert simulating navigation of a model rover on Mars and climbing volcanoes in Hawaii gathering data that is used by the worldwide research community. Yet he maintains his most gratifying discoveries are his Pathfinder protégés.
“These students are so gifted, they are able to start research right away,” Arvidson says. “One of the sophomores who worked with me on the 2008 Phoenix mission did such a thorough job, they thought she was a graduate. Although they come from diverse backgrounds and have unique interests, every one of them shares an insatiable curiosity about the environment, and they are tenacious in their devotion to attack and solve problems from different perspectives. That is what makes them leaders, and what makes this program so exciting.”
Pathfinder students share Arvidson’s enthusiasm. “I’ve always been interested in physics,” Christina Kreisch says. “Working with Professor Arvidson is an amazing experience, because he is very good about explaining what he does.” Sophomore Nathan Stein adds, “We get to do field work right away and participate in NASA Mars Exploration Rover and Phoenix Lander Missions. Where else can you do that?”
“Unfortunately there are just not enough merit scholarships for all of the outstanding, talented students out there,” Arvidson says. But he’s made it his mission to identify some of the most promising leaders and to engage them in work that could change the course of our planet.
Together, we will embrace the challenge of exploring unknown frontiers and of preparing future leaders to sustain our environment.