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November 19, 2017

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Hidden figure: UNLV student helps NASA delve into survival on other planets

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Steve Marcus

Amber Turner, a UNLV college student who went from working full-time at McDonald’s to joining the army to interning at NASA, poses at the student union on UNLV campus Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.

Amber Turner tried to balance working and going to school full time, but when she passed out in her economics class from exhaustion, she knew it wasn’t possible.

“I realized I was lost when I was working at McDonald’s trying to pay my tuition,” Turner said. “I thought: I don’t like what I’m studying enough to be this exhausted. If I’m going to work that much, I want to love what I’m doing.”

Inspiration struck when she was wandering UNLV’s campus one day and saw recruiters with the Army Reserve. She looked to her mother for advice. “She said, ‘Would you rather be wearing a McDonald’s uniform or an Army uniform?’ ”

Turner went for the pressed camouflage, becoming a civil affairs specialist. Once a month, she trains for humanitarian missions, studying on her own time to be a sergeant. Although she hasn’t deployed, she credits her drive to the experience of serving as a reservist. That’s part of why this summer, the 22-year-old college student alternated between fatigues and a NASA lab coat.

From January through August, Turner interned at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, furthering her research on petrology, the study of how the environment affects rocks and minerals. Turner said petrology helps scientists understand the history of a planet’s geology, and ultimately why some planets, like Earth, can sustain life, and others can’t.

Experimental Petrology

The study of how environmental pressures affect the minerals and geology of celestial bodies, such as how asteroid collisions have an impact on the moon or planets such as Earth and Mars.

High Pressure Petrology

NASA mimics the conditions that gave rise to how igneous rocks and minerals were formed inside planets. This helps explain how planets were formed, how that affects the possibility of life on those planets and how life came to be on our own planet.

“A hallmark of really successful people is they prepare themselves for the next opportunity. Amber is emblematic of that,” said Liam Frink, coordinator for UNLV’s Office of Undergraduate Research. “She’s fearless when jumping into the next thing.”

Turner, a 2012 Palo Verde High School graduate, started at UNLV on a business track. Thanks to her professors, she got exposed to the study of meteorites, which pushed her to change her major to geology and then to become an ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research. Part of its mission is to give the university’s diverse student population a chance to participate in high-level research, Frink said.

“One, it’s the right thing to do — everybody should have access,” he said. “And two, it’s important to global competition. Diversity, whatever kind that is, brings in different ways of thinking than the typical way ... different ways to solve problems. It makes us stronger as a nation.”

Turner displays several qualities that reflect and drive her ambition. Frink said she works well as both a leader and a member of the team; she’s confident in her ability to succeed but still eager to learn. She is one of many students, he said, who will do amazing things when given the chance.

“She’s an everyday person doing extraordinary things — she’s a great role model for students,” Frink said.

During her time at NASA, Turner learned how to make synthetic compositions of meteorites and how the composition of life is affected by geology. She plans to graduate next fall before attending grad school, and ultimately ending up at NASA full time.

“It’s been absolutely amazing,” she said. “I love waking up and going to the Space Center and working alongside these scientists who are fundamental in human survival, even if it’s not directly linked to that. It’s learning how our species can survive wherever we are.”

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