Sciences and Exploration Directorate
Early Career Scientist Spotlight - Andrea Hughes

Early Career Scientist Spotlight

Dr. Andréa Hughes (she/her/hers)

Planetary Scientist
Ionosphere, Thermosphere, Mesosphere Physics Laboratory (675)

What is your research focus?

I have a diverse background in Earth and Planetary Sciences, having studied both Martian surface and upper atmospheric processes. My current research includes exploring the phenomenology, variability, and driving processes of Martian proton aurora (one of three primary types of aurora on Mars). As part of my work at NASA, I study the relationship between proton aurora, the solar wind, and the upstream/local magnetic field environments at Mars. To do this, I use data from the magnetometer instrument and the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument onboard NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft. The results of my research provide a novel and unprecedented understanding of Martian proton aurora. Perhaps the most exciting part is that we have found proton aurora to be an important component of observing present day Martian hydrogen/atmospheric escape; this means that my research ties into our understanding of the bigger picture of water loss at Mars, which has transformed the planet from being previously warm and wet (and potentially habitable) into the cold, dry, uninhabitable planet that we see today.

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I was super excited to visit NASA's Kennedy Space Center on this day, particularly because it was when I received my official NASA employee badge (signifying the start of a career at NASA that I had dreamt about for a long time)!
Credit: Andréa Hughes

What inspired you to pursue a career in Planetary Science?

When I was young, I saw a movie called October Sky (which was adapted from the book Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam). This movie inspired in me an excitement and wonder about space. From then on, I felt mesmerized every time I looked at the stars. In my teenage years I spent countless hours staying up late at night to read NASA and other space-related websites and learn about people’s fantastical ideas of colonizing Mars. After spending time throughout high school and undergrad researching career paths and doing informational interviews with people in the field, I realized that I wanted to contribute to planetary missions and exploration, and to eventually be part of the team that sends the first humans to Mars. I began conducting my own Mars research as part of my master’s and doctoral thesis research projects; I have continued to study the Red Planet since then, and I look forward to studying other planetary bodies as well over the course of my career.

What research accomplishment are you most proud of?

The research accomplishment that I am most proud of in my career so far was when my first peer-reviewed journal article was turned into a NASA press release. It was incredibly exciting to see my research gain so much notoriety as to warrant considerable press and social media attention from the public (e.g., from NASA, my university, and many other online forums). I was even interviewed by a science reporter about my research after I gave a presentation at a conference during this time (which was a fun experience!). It’s not very common as a scientist to have one’s research receive public attention, so I felt incredibly honored and proud of my and my coauthors’ hard work on the project! (If you’re interested, you can check out the NASA press release and my university's press release.)

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This photo was “commissioned” by my university for a press release about my PhD research on Martian proton aurora. The picture shows one of my PhD Advisors (Ed Mierkiewicz) and me in front of an image of NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft at Mars.
Credit: Embry Riddle Aeronautical University/Daryl LaBello

What do you like to do in your free time?

I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, playing/snuggling with my cat, visiting local coffee shops, singing and playing guitar, and doing different sporting activities (e.g., hiking, biking, kayaking, and rock climbing). One of my very favorite things to do is travel! I love exploring new countries, learning firsthand about different cultures, and trying delicious new foods. I was raised in a military family and we traveled a lot while I was growing up, so I caught the travel bug from a young age!

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I had a wonderful experience visiting the Parthenon/Acropolis while in Athens, Greece for a scientific conference. Greece is a beautiful country with a lot of history, and it was awe-inspiring to visit such a remarkable place!
Credit: Andréa Hughes

What advice would you give your younger self?

If I could give advice to my younger self, I would tell her to be patient (because accomplishing anything worthwhile takes time), stay curious (since curiosity can inspire and lead you to unexpected places/discoveries), be open to new opportunities (even if it’s not what you planned or expected), and to follow your own path (i.e., you don’t have to follow the “typical” path that others have laid out before you). I would also tell myself to keep working hard, but to take regular breaks and vacations where you do completely unrelated fun things; I’m a huge advocate of mental health and I think that fostering a good work-life balance is vitally important to living a healthy and full life. And lastly, I’d tell myself to carve out time to intentionally spend with family and friends as often as possible – life is short and investing in these relationships will be the most meaningful and fulfilling part of your life!

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I recently had the chance to visit my brother, who lives abroad in Amsterdam. We had a great time taking a canal boat tour through the city and exploring historic Amsterdam.
Credit: Gerian Terry

What and/or who inspires you?

I’m very inspired by my Christian faith and try to incorporate this into my motivation for day-to-day work and career achievements. I enjoy thinking about the intersection of faith and science. And I see the universe as an amazing mystery that God created, which I have the privilege of getting to explore for a living! I also feel inspired by people who actively live out their beliefs in a tangible way by using their talents, passions, background, and knowledge in order to accomplish something wonderful for the betterment of humanity and advancement of society as a whole (whether that may be in science or any other field).

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“Wow, this moon is heavy!” Having some fun while visiting the science museum!
Credit: Eryn Cangi

What is a fun fact about you?

I studied abroad in Thailand during my senior year of high school. During that time, I lived with a Thai host family and went to a Thai school. I didn’t speak a word of Thai when I got there, but I quickly fell in love with the people and country, which inspired me to learn to speak, read, and write fluently in Thai. It’s been a while since I’ve lived in Thailand now (and sadly my Thai is not nearly as fluent as it used to be!), but I cherish the time that I spent there and the relationships that I built, so I try to go back to visit my host family and friends whenever I can!

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Hiking around the Grand Canyon with my friend. As a geologist by training, it was an incredible experience to visit such a renowned geological location.
Credit: Hannes Gröller


Home Town:
N/A (Military kid – I lived lots of places!)

Undergraduate Degree:
B.S., Space Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, FL

Post-graduate Degrees:
M.S., Planetary Geosciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN

PhD, Engineering Physics, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, FL

personal photo
Credit: Christopher Heale

Link to Dr. Hughes's GSFC Bio

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