Rebekah Sosland remembers the first time she saw the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity touch down on the Martian surface 10 years ago. She was 14, in the eighth grade in Fredericksburg, Texas, and watching the momentous event unfold on television as classmates around her chatted and passed notes.
"I saw this big bouncing popcorn thing on this red surface, and a voice said we now had two rovers on Mars," Sosland recalls. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, we have a rover on another planet?' I had no idea that was really going on."
What Sosland didn't know then was that 10 years later, Opportunity, originally scheduled for a three-month mission, would still be roving the Red Planet, providing key information on the presence of potentially life-sustaining water — or that she herself would play a vital role in its mission.
Today, Sosland works as an engineer at JPL. As the tactical downlink lead for Opportunity, she sends commands to the rover and then tracks its progress by analyzing the data it sends back to Earth from about 140 million miles away. Despite her interest in space, Sosland never imagined being part of an actual space mission.
"I never thought for a billion years I'd be working in this industry," she says.
A link between the scientists, whose exploration goals guide the mission, and the engineers who carry out the logistics, Sosland knows what Opportunity is doing at every single moment of the day, even when she's in bed at night.
Her path to JPL took passion and hard work — including a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas and internships at JPL and the private space exploration company SpaceX — but teachers helped her see the fun of doing, not just learning about, science.
She recommends students with an interest in science or math consider careers in the fields and sees hands-on learning as a way to nurture those interests.
La Cañada High School science teacher Tom Traeger, who's used JPL missions in class to inspire his own students, couldn't agree more.
"You have to get students involved in what they're learning," Traeger says. "Science is an inquiry-centered endeavor — you just have to do it."
Sosland offers this advice to budding scientists: "I hope everyone shoots for the stars, because that's where the future is. If I can do this, anyone can do it."