NASA Early Career Fellowship awarded to Dr. Michelle Thompson - Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences - Purdue University Skip to main content

NASA Early Career Fellowship awarded to Dr. Michelle Thompson


Writer(s): Cheryl Pierce


Dr. Michelle Thompson has been awarded an Early Career Fellowship from NASA.  She is an Assistant Professor for the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University.  The NASA Early Career Fellowship (ECF) program supports the development of individual research programs of outstanding scientists early in their careers and stimulates research careers in the areas supported by the NASA Planetary Sciences Division. This Program is based on the idea that supporting key individuals is a critical mechanism for achieving high impact science that will lead the field forward with new concepts, technologies, and methods.

Thompson is originally from Canada and studied as an undergrad at Queen’s University in Canada.  While there, she earned a double degree in Geological Engineering and Biology. She received her MSc and PhD in Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, before moving on to be a NASA Postdoctoral Fellow at Johnson Space Center, and then coming to Purdue University.

“A fun fact about me is that I made it to the top 32 candidates in the 2017 Canadian astronaut selection! Didn’t get picked, but it was an awesome experience,” says Thompson. “I have always been ambitious, but growing up as a young girl in rural Ontario, Canada, even in my wildest dreams, I never thought I would find a pathway to working for and writing winning proposals from NASA. It is surreal to spend every day doing something I love, and to be rewarded for that work is very gratifying and very humbling. I have had the benefit of wonderful mentorship over the years, and have now begun to build my own group of talented and motivated students. I share this success with all of them!”

In order to receive this fellowship, scientists must submit a seven-page proposal. Thompson’s proposal involved building a group entitled Laboratory studies of the Evolution of Airless Planetary Surfaces (LEAPS).

“Our work focuses on understanding the alteration of planetary bodies across the solar system,” says Thompson.  “We do that by performing experiments, simulating surface conditions on other planets, and by analyzing samples that have been returned from other bodies like the Moon. The proposal will fund the purchase of equipment to support our work. The goal of LEAPS is not only to train graduate students and post-docs here at Purdue, but to develop a workshop series for the handling and analysis of small extra-terrestrial samples. This opportunity would be open to students, post-docs, and researchers broaden the community of scientists who have the skills to handle and study extraterrestrial samples.”

Thompson plans to use the funding from the fellowship to purchase major equipment for her laboratory, as well as to fund travel to conferences for herself and her students. 

“This financial support will enable me to make my laboratory truly world-class,” she says.  “It will provide me with the ability to reach beyond my own research group and offer training opportunities to the planetary science community at large. It will help strengthen the foundation of returned sample analysis here at Purdue.”

Because Purdue University is a land-grant university, both research and education are keys to its success.  For Thompson, teaching while conducting research go hand in hand.

“It really is true when they say you don’t really understand something until you try to teach it. Teaching, and thinking deeply about the topics I’m discussing in class, has had a wonderful influence on my research program, giving me ideas, and strengthening my concept of connections between my science and the broader picture of planetary science. This past semester, my teaching and research went hand-in-hand. I was teaching a Laboratory Analysis class, where I instructed the students on many of the techniques I use in my every-day research, and those similar to what I would teach in the workshop series I proposed in my early career fellowship. It was rewarding to give them some hands-on experience, to get them out of the regular lecture-style class room and into the lab.”

Thompson’s lab group currently has multiple projects in the works.  According to Thompson, “myself and students are working on tiny dust particles returned from asteroid Itokawa by the Hayabusa mission. We are also going to be among the first in the world to study an Apollo 17 core sample which was recently made available to the community. We are also performing experiments to simulate the surfaces of carbonaceous asteroids, in preparation for sample return from the OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 missions. We are just starting a project to explore the origins of water in lunar soils from various Apollo missions, and to understand surface processes on the planet Mercury. Exciting studies relevant to all different types of planetary bodies!”

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