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Chris McKay
Chris McKay

Planetary Scientist
Space Science Division
NASA Ames Research Center
Expedition Lead

Who I am and what I do
I received my Ph.D. in AstroGeophysics from the University of Colorado in 1982 and have been a research scientist with the NASA Ames Research Center since that time. My current research focuses on the evolution of the solar system and the origin of life.

I'm also actively involved in planning for future Mars missions including human settlements. He is involved in research in Mars-like environments on Earth, traveling to the Antarctic dry valleys, Siberia, the Canadian Arctic, and the Atacama desert to study life in these Mars-like environments.

I was a co-I on the Titan Huygen’s probe in 2005, the Mars Phoenix lander misson for 2007, and the Mars Science Lander mission for 2009. I am currently the Program Scientist for the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program.

What helped me prepare for this job
As an undergrad I studied physics and mechanical engineering. I think this was a good choice for me since it was a good foundation for all the broad research approaches needed for my current research.

Career Path
When I was in school I studied physics and from physics I gravitated toward astrophysics. In 1976 I was a first year graduate student in the department of Astrogeophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. That same year Viking landed on Mars. The results were most mysterious to me. Here was a planet with all the elements needed to support life (CO2, H2O,N2) present in its atmosphere, with evidence of liquid water in the past and yet there was no sign of life. It seems like Mars had "the lights on but nobody home". I slowly became more and more interested in life and how it originates, survives and changes a planet.

In 1980 I applied to be a NASA graduate student Planetary Biology Summer Intern. I was accepted and sent to NASA Ames working with Jim Pollack. While at Ames I met Imre Friedmann of Florida State University and became involved in microbiological work in the dry valleys of Antarctica. I became more and more interested in life and planets and continue to this day to conduct research in this area with a special focus on Mars and with many trips to the Antarctic.

What I like most about my job
As a scientist I find two things help me in my work. First the chance to think deeply about problems and observations. It's not easy for me to do this in my office (except late at night) and usually I do my deep thinking when I am in the field (especially Antarctica) or at meetings and while visiting other institutions.

The second important part of the creative process for me is talking with colleagues. For me involving the language capability -- writing works but talking is even better -- causes my brain to process information in new and creative ways. Often in this process I discover connections between things that I did not previously realize.

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