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Career Inflection Points

Tanya Harrison shares her journey to working on NASA projects on Mars to saving the planet Earth.

STEM PROFILE | TANYA HARRISON

Today Tanya Harrison has landed her dream job as the director of science strategy for Planet, an Earth-observing satellite company based in Washington, D.C. But to get there, she’s experienced some epic career inflection points. The kinds of seismic changes a trained geologist can especially appreciate. And while these shifts and shakes took place on earth, planet Mars was at the heart of all of them. But first, there was Tanya’s moon phase.

You probably think Tanya was one of those kids who fell in love with all things space because she saw a comet or was a Star Trek fan. You’d be wrong. Watching the movie Big Bird in Japan was all it took. In the film, the affable avian puppet met the mythological princess of the moon and was smitten—as was Tanya. After that, she was obsessed with spending her nights staring at the stars and the moon. When her grandfather explained that the moon and earth rotated around the sun, it blew her mind.

Staring at the moon is one thing, but what transpired for Tanya to shift her affection to the Red Planet to the point she jokingly describes herself as a Professional Martian on her social feeds?

It turns out she discovered her true “path” after the Pathfinder mission landed on Mars. “This was the first mission where NASA sent a rover to another planet,” recalls Tanya during her TARATALK conversation with Gotara founder and CEO D. Sangeeta.

“When they released an animation of images of the tiny Sojourner rover driving onto the surface of Mars, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I thought, “Wow, we’re driving robots on another planet. I want to work on robots on another planet! Everything I did was focused on space and Mars and wanting to figure out how I could work for NASA in the future.”

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Here’s when those career inflection points started happening 

“Overall, it’s been really strongly positive in terms of the experience.”

At the age of 15, Tanya enrolled in astrology at university but soon realized that path might not take her to Mars. “In my junior year, I learned that if I wanted to study Mars, I should have been a geologist because all of the rocky planets and moons in our solar system are like each other. Volcanoes work the same way on pretty much every planet. Impact craters look the same as channels cut by rivers or lava. And so, understanding that on earth helps you apply it to another planet.”

In addition to grappling with what her major should be, Tanya was also wrestling with fitting into the university scene. Being one of the few women in her program wasn’t the only reason she stood out. “I also have a physical disability; a rare condition called ankylosing spondylitis, where all of your joints hate you, and they start to fuse together. So, I spent a lot of time in and out of wheelchairs or using canes or braces. It’s very noticeable when you’re the only person in your class in a wheelchair.”  In addition, to being a woman with some physical challenges, she was also considerably younger than her classmates. “All these things conspired together to not create the best social environment for going to university,” she noted.

 But Tanya persevered and completed her undergraduate degree in astrology, with a double major in physics. By this point, she knew that getting to Mars required a shift, so she set off to do a masters in geology. It was a shaky transition—not because of the subject matter. Her advisor had a rather mercurial personality who shifted her demands on a whim.

“I don’t think I handled [the situation with my advisor] very well; it was extremely stressful,” recalled Tanya. “I cried a lot. I was very depressed. Luckily, I connected with a former student of the same adviser who shared her story with me and helped me realize that it wasn’t me; it was this other person. It turns out the advisor had a pattern of treating people this way, and that helped me feel a little bit better because I felt I wasn’t cutting it, and I wondered if switching to geology had been a terrible idea.”

Career liftoff!

But Tanya, after completing her graduate work, was on the right “flight” to Mars, as she landed a job working with a contractor who builds cameras for NASA missions. “I’ve been interested in cameras and photography ever since I was pretty young,” Tanya explained. “I remember saving up points from those scholastic book sales as a kid and getting a bright orange neon camera. And when I was older, I got my first real job, and I saved money to buy a camera. One day I went to the mall to buy one, and randomly they were filming a game show that I ended up getting on, and I won! I used the winnings to buy a camera and help pay for college.” 

For the next few years, Tanya worked on NASA’s Mars Perseverance, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, as well as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Her job involved taking pictures of the Mars surface to help create a pictorial map of the planet. Like an earth-bound photographer, she communicated the framing to the camera on Mars and found the best lighting. (Something that involves understanding how the shadows are falling in the southern hemisphere during different seasons.) “The next day, I would look at those pictures from the standpoint of an engineer. ‘Are the cameras functioning properly?’ And then as a geologist, ‘What is in this picture that’s teaching us something about the history of Mars?’”

 

Time for another career inflection point …

Tanya felt she had landed the coolest job ever—something she wanted to do for the rest of her life, but her goal was become the principal investigator of a mission, and that meant she needed a PhD. “It was a tough choice,” she recalled. “I was living out my dream, right? I was finally working on a rover. I was working on a satellite orbiting Mars. My job was the coolest thing ever.” 

But she took the leap, and for months afterwards, she doubted her decision. Three months after she left, Curiosity landed on Mars, and she had a major case of FOMO. “Watching it land from the observatory at the university that I ended up going to for a PhD was difficult because I knew that all of my friends were back at mission control. I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, was this a huge mistake?’ But as time went on, I realized it was the best decision because it took me out of a very toxic environment.” 

 

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And yet another career inflection point that led to where Tanya is today

After a post-grad stint at Arizona State University, where she was working on the MARS Perseverance project, Tanya was offered a job at Planet. “It was a few months before Perseverance was supposed to land on Mars,” said Tanya. “I liked Planet and its mission, but I had this nagging feeling, ‘Oh, you walked away from a rover again! What were you thinking?’” So, like before, Tanya watched Perseverance land from afar. She admits to a little FOMO but quickly adds she is happy for the crew —and happy to be where she’s at.

The culture at Planet is exceptionally supportive; her colleagues are all passionate “space nerds” who want to change the world one pixel at a time. Literally.

Planet built the satellite that BuzzFeed News used to take images that helped expose China’s detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in its Xinjiang region. “They won a Pulitzer Prize for their story,” noted Tanya. “A lot of people work at Planet for very altruistic reasons. Being able to monitor human rights abuses or efforts to combat climate change or save whales makes us feel like we can make a difference… I work with people who love what they do. They’re passionate about wanting to change the world.”