Rock on: “space rock” prof wins major award

Darby Dyar in her office

Interview by Keely Savoie 

The G. K. Gilbert Award, a rarified award from the Geological Society of America, was bestowed on Mount Holyoke College chair of astronomy Darby Dyar in recognition of her contributions to the field of planetary geology. Dyar, who studies “space rocks” using spectroscopy and has taught at Mount Holyoke College since 1998, has mentored hundreds of students over her career, both within and outside of her department. 

Dyar discussed her work, the award, and her vision going forward while in her office, surrounded by photographs and mementos from students past and present. She is currently waiting on word from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on three submitted proposals for missions to Venus. 

How did you feel when you found out you’d won the G. K. Gilbert Award? 

When I heard, I was so deeply moved. The other people who’ve gotten the Gilbert Award have run NASA missions or have been at major research universities and had formidable careers. Not only that, but I am only the fourth woman to have received it, and certainly the only one at a liberal arts college like Mount Holyoke. 

When you teach at an undergraduate institution, the whole point of giving research projects to undergraduate students is to get them familiar with the research process. This means you can take risks that you couldn’t take with a graduate student whose thesis depends on the outcome. So research projects with Mount Holyoke students have created whole new interests for me. 

I often say that research keeps me actively engaged in my discipline, and that in turn carries over into my teaching. 

Your work primarily involves using spectroscopy to learn about the planets around us. Can you tell me more about how that works and what it can tell us about our solar system? 

Spectroscopy is a way of investigating and analyzing the energy that is produced when matter interacts with or emits electromagnetic radiation. In pursuing my research I have mastered several kinds of spectroscopy. I started in Mössbauer spectroscopy, but then as I got into my research I got interested in questions that Mössbauer couldn't answer, so I started using other kinds of spectroscopy. 

The big question is, when the solar system first formed, how did the elements get distributed among the planets and why? I am especially interested in looking at the distribution of oxygen. Most people know there are icy planets far from the sun and rocky planets close to the sun. The reason for that has to do with the heat of the sun, but what we don't understand is what happened to the oxygen, because although it is found throughout the outer solar system and the inner solar system it is, ironically, very difficult to measure directly in geological materials. Why is it distributed the way it is? 

In the end, the ultimate question is, what makes a planet habitable—and are we alone? Life as we know it evolved in a very small restricted region of our solar system where water is stable. We want to understand what are the other characteristics of analogous planets in other solar systems. Looking at oxygen is a small but very important part of this puzzle. 

How has teaching several courses a year changed your career? 

I've been teaching for 35 years, and in my career I’ve developed extremely close and valuable professional relationships with students, to the benefit of my research career. If you scratch the surface of prestigious research universities you will find that a disproportionate number of the faculty members come from institutions like ours. Teaching courses in a rapidly-changing field like planetary science has forced me to keep up with current research, motivated by bright students who challenge and teach me constantly. 

At the end of the day, I am proud of my textbooks, and the body of work of my research, of course. But the students that I’ve taught and the careers that they have gone on to have, shaping and changing the field with their own work, are what I am most proud of. 

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