Plan­etary sci­entist Mimi Ger­stell spoke to stu­dents about her per­sonal expe­ri­ences dealing with the pol­itics of the sci­en­tific com­munity. Madeleine Miller | Collegian

Accom­plished plan­etary sci­entist Mimi Ger­stell, PhD gave a public lecture Oct. 31 titled “Per­spec­tives on Mars.”

Roughly 25 stu­dents attended the Astronomy Club talk during which she recounted a few anec­dotes from her book “Fish Stories by a Sci­en­tific Nobody.”

Ger­stell com­pleted her under­graduate degree in math­e­matics at Harvard Uni­versity and later earned her doc­torate in plan­etary science from Cal­i­fornia Institute of Tech­nology. She did not earn her PhD imme­di­ately after grad­u­ating from Harvard but said she had always intended to pursuit her doctorate.

“At a certain age, I thought, ‘Dear me, I’d always meant to get a PhD,’” Ger­stell said. “It was like when you go to the grocery store and forget to grab something.”

Ger­stell has since made sig­nif­icant con­tri­bu­tions to the sci­en­tific com­munity. She has worked among some of the leading experts in the field, con­ducted ground­breaking research, and written several books.

After receiving a donation solic­i­tation from Hillsdale College, Ger­stell reached out to Timothy Dolch, assistant pro­fessor of physics, to discuss the prospect of her speaking at the college.

“I read Imprimis, and they were asking for dona­tions to the college,” Ger­stell said. “This is what I’m giving. I hope I have enriched Hillsdale.”

Gerstell’s talk cen­tered on her per­sonal expe­ri­ences dealing with the pol­itics of the sci­en­tific com­munity. She said anyone can read about the tech­ni­cal­ities of her research in her pub­lished work, but she wanted to amuse lis­teners with her per­sonal anec­dotes and offer under­graduate stu­dents a glimpse of behind the scenes activity in sci­en­tific research.

She recounted one instance in which she learned of unex­pected reasons for sci­en­tists to promote their work. Despite the fact that she had been unable to accom­plish what she had hoped to with a study on the surface layers of Mars and her findings were therefore unre­markable, her boss was adamant that she explain them at a conference.

Ger­stell later realized that her boss had two extra­neous moti­va­tions for encour­aging her to present. First, he was hoping that by pre­senting her data, she would attract attention to the sci­entist whose work she drew from and cited in her study. Second, her boss was a champion of women in science and wished to give her the oppor­tunity to speak at the conference.

Another of Gerstell’s anec­dotes demon­strated the fluc­tu­a­tions of popular sci­en­tific thought. She recalled that one paper she co-wrote, which sug­gested that sulfur dioxide in the atmos­phere of Mars could have made pos­sible the presence of running water on the planet’s surface at one time, was widely rejected at the time of its publication.

One sci­entist refuted Gerstell’s and the others’ claim on the basis that sulfur dioxide would not have been com­patible with the planet’s surface level rocks, and their pro­posal faded into obscurity. Years later, when the prospect of running water on Mars in the planet’s early years gained ground, sci­en­tists revisited Gerstell’s team’s paper, and it emerged as a defin­itive source on the matter.

“Fashions wax and wane in the sci­en­tific uni­verse,” she said.

Senior Philip Andrews found out about Gerstell’s lecture through Dolch, and appre­ciated learning about her expe­ri­ences with pol­itics of the sci­en­tific community.

“I enjoy lis­tening to speakers from outside the school and learning that there are bigger issues out there,” he said. “It’s a great oppor­tunity to take advantage of.”

Dolch, who earned his under­graduate degree at the Cal­i­fornia Institute of Tech­nology and can relate to Gerstell’s expe­ri­ences, said that the per­spective she offered was invaluable given her exposure to some of the giants in science at Caltech.

“It was quite a treat,” Dolch said.