Darby Dyar

Dr. Melinda Darby Dyar specializes in mineralogy, geology, planetary science and related fields. She is a Senior Scientist at PSI and contributes in many ways to TREX’s goal of understanding Earth’s closest neighbors. She tests mineral samples from terrestrial bodies using various types of spectroscopy (the study of how of matter and electromagnetic radiation interact). Using this, she hopes to understand the distribution of elements, especially oxygen and hydrogen, in our solar system. She is involved in many experiments within the project, lending her mineral expertise to various members of the TREX team.

Dr. Dyar is unique not only because of the depth of her experience, but its breadth. She is trained in many different scientific disciplines ranging from geology to astronomy, as well as in many branches of spectroscopy. Most spectroscopic scientists will specialize in one or two sub-disciplines, but she has worked in over a dozen. That is more than any other member of the TREX team, making Dr. Dyar a very valuable asset.

In 1985, Dr. Dyar wrote an influential review paper on the use of Mössbauer spectroscopy. Mössbauer spectroscopy utilizes the Mössbauer effect in order to measure the absorption of gamma rays emitted by a nucleus without energy being lost in recoil. From measuring the valence levels of iron, Dyar could determine the concentrations of oxygen that were present at the time of formation. This was determined due to the different valent forms of iron. Iron with a +3 charge requires more oxygen to be created than iron with +2 charge, so by looking at the ratio of the Fe2+ and Fe3+, scientists can draw conclusions about the concentration of oxygen at the time of formation.

This technique has been instrumental in understanding the distribution of essential elements in nearby terrestrial bodies. The TREX team specifically uses this technique on samples procured from the Moon and asteroids. Finding the distribution of elements is not only important because of what it tells us about the past, but also what it tells us about the future. The primary goal of TREX is to determine the resource utilization potential of the terrestrial bodies near the Earth. The Moon may seem barren, but there are many interesting resources to be found in the minerals on and beneath its surface.

Dr. Dyar also contributes to impact testing on various materials. She provides samples of minerals that the tests are focused on. These tests are performed on dust particles, so she will often have to grind minerals into dust in order to create acceptable test conditions. Other scientists will then do various kinds of experiments with the dust, including shooting high-speed pellets at the dust to see how it reacts when pressurized. Dr. Dyar explained to me the extremely collaborative nature of the TREX team. Everyone is involved in multiple projects and help when their specialization is required. This type of environment is Dr. Dyar’s favorite way to work, because she is an interpersonal worker and enjoys helping others to succeed.

As a planetary scientist, professor of astronomy, and Senior Scientist on the TREX team, Dr. Dyar is an extremely busy woman; yet she still managed to put aside the time to speak with me over Skype. In the hour-long interview, I learned about her scientific accolades, personal achievements, and greatest inspirations, but what stuck with me most was the way her warm personality shone through every word she said.

Dr. Dyar received her undergraduate education at Wellesley College, a prestigious woman’s college that specializes in liberal arts. Initially she planned to major in art history, but after a life-changing Geology 101 class, she decided to further pursue a scientific degree. She was inspired by the class’s professor, and now her good friend, Meg Thomson. Starting a second major so late was no easy feat; her senior year was filled with challenging classes, made more difficult by her lack of experience in these subjects. She worked hard with tutors from the Geology Department, and in the end her hard work paid off. During her senior year, she worked with Professor Roger Burns at MIT, helping with lab work and computer engineering. He persuaded her to apply to MIT, and she was granted admission. After completing her graduate schooling there, she received her Ph.D. in 1985.

Since then, she has made many impressive contributions to the scientific world. She has written over 250 peer-reviewed papers about analyzing geological materials, written two textbooks on minerology and geo-statistics, and received the 2016 G. K. Gilbert Award from the Planetary Geology Division of the Geological Society (she is only the 4th woman to receive this honor and 2nd Wellesley alumnus). Remarkably, she accomplished all this and more while teaching undergraduate astronomy classes at Mount Holyoke College. Some other notable accomplishments include developing new techniques in mineral spectroscopy.

Dr. Dyar has also been on several NASA teams, and even helped calibrate the Curiosity rover. Curiosity was launched in 2011 and after making a successful landing, has roamed the surface of Mars for the last 7 years. Dr. Dyar and her team contributed to this effort by developing the ChemCam’s calibration target assembly that sits on the front of the rover, and testing various data processing tools. Following the landing, she and some of her students played an important role in analyzing the data generated by the ChemCam. Dr. Dyar uses the same analysis techniques from this mission in the TREX project to try and determine the resource utilization potential of the Moon and other small terrestrial bodies.

I got to experience Dr. Dyar’s outgoing personality first-hand during our Skype interview. Though I was very nervous, she was warm and immediately made me feel comfortable. After explaining the importance of dust in her field of study, she told me her soon-to-be infamous catchphrase, “Dust has a story”. Her fun sense of humor and enthusiasm for her work quickly drew me in. When asked how her friends would describe her, Dr. Dyar said that she “is a nurturing person, a good listener, and likes to laugh a lot”. I saw all three of these traits during the interview. Her nurturing personality is evident from her activism and devotion to her students. She was also patient with me and made a lovely conversational partner.

Dr. Dyar’s conversational skills are important to her career as a scientist. She frequently gives speeches and lectures, and therefore must be able to speak in front of an audience. She also must explain the results of her work and apply for grants. She has excellent writing skills as well, as evidenced by her many papers and books. Originally, she wanted to be a journalist, so she has an extensive background in communications. She said that these are some of the most important skills she has to utilize because she must write reports and give presentations to apply for funding. Like all large projects, without funding very little can be achieved.

I was surprised to find out that in addition to her many scientific hats, Dr. Dyar is also a competitive rower. She competes on a rowing team, something she enjoys because for once she does not have to be the leader. Rowing is a collaborative sport, and she loves being on a team. She also noted the meditative quality of rowing, and that physical exercise is a great de-stressor. In addition to rowing, she also likes to make quilts in her free time. She says that doing so is similarly meditative and is also a good outlet for her creative energy. Being able to express herself through art is important to her and offers a nice break from her demanding scientific career. She even showed me a quilt she had made (star-patterned of course), and several model planets that hung from her ceiling.

Dr. Dyar also has a son and daughter who are both in college. Her daughter has followed her footsteps and attends Wellesley College, being the fourth consecutive generation of women in their family to attend. Her daughter aspires to be a senator. Dr. Dyar’s son is an engineer at Harvey Mudd College, and has worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab for the last two years.

Dr. Dyar was not interested in science until college. In high school, she was the only girl in her Calculus class, and often felt ostracized by her male classmates. Believing she was done with STEM, she wanted to be a journalist. She took Geology 101 her sophomore year of college to satisfy her core requirements. She never expected to enjoy the class, but she was blown away by her professor’s opening lecture. Professor Meg Thomson, now a close friend, inspired her greatly. Dyar found that for the first time, science really clicked with her and she signed up for more of Professor Thomson’s courses.

As a visual learner, Dr. Dyar enjoyed Thomson’s use of diagrams and succinct explanations, but what she really admired was having a female science professor. Growing up in Indiana in the 1960’s, Dyar did not have many female role models in STEM fields. She hopes above all to be an inspiration to women and encourage more women to work in scientific disciplines. She has kept this resolution, and frequently goes out of her way to make the field more open to women. For example, she was motivated to write her textbooks when she realized that she had never read a graduate level textbook written by a woman. She also often speaks at women’s colleges, advocating for women to pursue scientific careers. This advocacy was recognized, in addition to her scientific achievements, when she won the G. K. Gilbert Award.

Dr. Dyar is also inspired by her students. As a professor, she loves nothing more than when her students find success. When I asked her about her greatest accomplishments she said: “this happen always when my students do something where they excel, like giving a talk at a conference and knocking it out of the park or writing a paper that wins an award…” Like all educators, her students’ success is an extension of her own goal to inspire a new generation of scientists.

Dr. Dyar is very motivated by her desire to be a role model for future scientists. She said the most important trait in being a role model is caring about others, “[gone are] the days where scientists could go off in a cave and do science for themselves”. Our world is so interconnected that science has become a collaborative undertaking. The applications of science should also be much more geared toward helping society as a whole. Dr. Dyar also explained that as a scientist, it is important to “be yourself”. There are some stereotypes that scientists are unfriendly or socially isolated. Therefore, occasionally sacrificing professionality for personality can be beneficial to increasing empathy for scientists and making science more accessible for everyone.