Amy Barr

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Amy Barr

Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Like many planetary scientists, Amy Barr wanted to be an astronaut. Her goals shifted in high school, when she encountered the intellectual challenges of mastering the hard sciences.

Amy Barr didn’t hesitate for a moment when asked why she was interested in joining the planetary science faculty at Brown University.

“Because it’s Brown,” she said. “I mean, you know, it’s one of the best planetary science groups in the world, and they don’t hire people very often. I had worked with people who had been postdoctoral researchers and graduate students at Brown. My thesis adviser (Robert Pappalardo) was a postdoc at Brown with Jim Head. I had visited several times before and always enjoyed my time there, and so when the position opened, I had to jump at it.”

Barr comes with some impressive credentials of her own. She’s a planetary geophysicist who uses mathematical models to answer questions about how planets and planetary moons form and why their surfaces look the way they do.

Last year, she was lead author on a paper in Nature Geoscience that hypothesized the differing geological histories of Jupiter’s two largest Galilean moons, Ganymede and Callisto, were due to the extent that each satellite was bombarded by comets in early solar system history. Ganymede, located much closer to Jupiter’s gravitational tug, would have endured more punishment than its kin satellite, which led to its different evolution.

“The numerical backbone of that model can be adapted to look at the formation of planets and how hot they get when they form,” she said.

At Brown, the incoming assistant professor of geological sciences wants to clarify the events surrounding how Earth’s moon was formed. “Ideas about the amount of water in the moon, the extent of melting during its formation, and the chemical similarities between the Earth and moon have changed in recent years,” she said. “All of this new evidence has to be reconciled with the prevailing theory that the moon was created out of a giant impact between a Mars-sized object and the primordial Earth. We are now at an exciting time to entertain new and creative ideas.”

She is looking forward to collaborating with her peers at Brown, some of whom have been front and center in recent discoveries that have changed current thinking about Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor.

“They are all world experts in interpreting what the surface of a planet tells you about the inside,” Barr said. “I’m someone who works in the inside. Our interests are very complementary. I look at what’s deep inside the planet and the planet sort of back in time. You kind of knit together what I do with what they do.”

The 32-year-old Barr grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. Like so many planetary scientists, she wanted to be an astronaut; by the time she was in high school, however, her focus had shifted to hard sciences. “It’s just more of an intellectual challenge,” she said.

As a freshman at the California Institute of Technology, Barr’s adviser for a summer undergraduate research fellowship steered her to a project to investigate why Ganymede and Callisto were so different. “I spent the entire summer sitting in my dorm room writing code to evaluate heat transfer by solid-state convection in the interior of a large icy satellite,” she wrote in a blog called Women in Planetary Science. “By the end of the ten-week project, I was completely hooked on theoretical planetary geophysics.”

“Almost everything I’ve done has been on that,” she added more recently.

Barr is married to Vladan Mlinar, who has accepted a position in the School of Engineering as an assistant professor (research). There, he will pursue research into new materials and game-changing technologies for renewable energy. The couple is living in Providence.

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