When geology professor Cassandra Runyon was a young girl, her father encouraged her to observe the world around her and taught her to appreciate the wonders of the universe.
A visual artist and architect, Runyon’s father would often ask his daughter to describe different objects – sometimes challenging her to articulate the properties of different rocks by touch alone.
Runyon says those formative experiences helped spark her lifelong fascination with geology and outer space. After earning an associate’s degree at a community college near her home in Upstate New York and a bachelor of science degree in geology at State University of New York at Fredonia, she went on to earn a master’s degree in geology from Southern Illinois University and a doctorate in geology and geophysics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
For someone enthralled by geology, Hawaii was a paradise for studying rocks and land formations. Runyon’s dissertation compared and contrasted Hawaii’s famous volcanic landscapes and lava formations with similar land features on the moon and Mars.
Today, as an associate professor of geology in the School of Sciences and Mathematics, Runyon retains the same passion and curiosity that brought her to the College of Charleston nearly 20 years ago.
She spends her days conveying her love of earth and planetary geology to curious students, exploring ways to expand STEM education and helping to advance South Carolina’s knowledge economy through challenging courses, grant funding and aerospace research.
Designing Space Missions
The class is taught in collaboration with the engineering program at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The students from the College, representing a range of academic disciplines from across the sciences and humanities, are designated as the project’s scientists, while the students from Huntsville serve as the project’s engineers.
The students are divided into teams and communicate via Skype and email. But the real challenge for the students, Runyon says, is learning to understand and communicate with each other.
“They represent different academic disciplines,” Runyon says. “So they learn very quickly that they don’t speak the same languages. Science jargon is not the same as engineering jargon.”
The science students identify the destination, or study areas, what they’ll study and what equipment they’ll need. They then collaborate with the engineering students, who conceive and design a spacecraft and flight plan to make the mission possible.
The finished mission proposals, which can run upwards of 500 pages, are presented to a review board made up of NASA and aerospace industry professionals. Presenting to seasoned scientists can be a nerve-racking and intimidating experience for the students, but it gives them a head start on the types of professional challenges they’ll later face in graduate programs and the workplace.
Runyon tells the story of one student group that presented a proposal to study volcanic formations on the planet Venus. The panel was so blown away by the caliber and quality of the proposal that they wanted to fund the mission on the spot. Runyon and the other mentors quickly explained to the panel members that the mission proposal was an undergraduate student exercise.
Mitch Colgan, chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, says the class provides students with foundational skills that help prepare them for advanced careers in science, medicine and other fields.
The ability to work in teams with people from other cultures and from other academic disciplines is a crucial skill that all students, regardless of major, should possess, Colgan says.
This year, the space mission class will focus on two specific projects: One team of students will plan a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons. A second team of students will work with a miniature space satellite called a CubeSat. Their task is to determine whether a particular type of mobile phone will function properly inside the CubeSat when deployed in space.
RELATED: Watch a video of one of Runyon’s former students explaining what he gained from the space mission class.
Space Research for NASA
In addition to teaching students how to plan and conduct research, Runyon remains active with her own space research – including projects on which she is an investigator as well as projects on which her office serves an important management and oversight function.
Throughout her career Runyon has worked on a number of major research projects, including significant contributions to the widely publicized discovery in 2009 of molecular water on the moon. That project involved the use of a Moon Mineralogy Mapper, a NASA-funded instrument that flew on India’s first mission to the Moon on board Chandrayaan-1.
Runyon is currently a member of two international research projects with NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. One project is studying the physical properties of Near Earth Asteroids. The second project, which includes researchers from Brown University & MIT, will evaluate the thermal and chemical evolution of planetary bodies.
As director of the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium and South Carolina NASA EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), Runyon also is responsible for overseeing and managing research grants funded by NASA under these programs. The programs support aerospace and aerospace-related research and innovation as well as faculty and student development.
The NASA Space Grant and EPSCoR programs are housed at the College of Charleston, and the College also is one of the program’s 15 member institutions.
Colgan says Runyon’s NASA-related work and research on behalf of the College over the past two decades has been instrumental in establishing and strengthening the university’s relationship with the space agency.
Science Education for the Visually Impaired
Of all the academic and research activities Runyon is involved with, one initiative is particularly important to her.
Throughout much of her career, Runyon has been working to identify ways to make science and space education more accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
She was instrumental in getting NASA to begin producing learning materials in braille. As a result of her efforts, several NASA-published education guides now include tactile pages that a blind person can use to identify and differentiate between different planetary surfaces and materials.
Runyon says her work in this area is especially gratifying because it eliminates barriers for people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to pursue an education or career in aerospace.
“I love being able to share my research interests in creative and useful ways… Just as my father once did with me,” she says.