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Faculty Profile: Karen Meech

by Robert Joseph, Faculty Chair

Karen Meech's research on comets has led to leadership roles in two major concurrent projects. She is one of the co-investigators who proposed and developed the scientific concepts of the Deep Impact mission discussed throughout this issue. She is also the principal investigator for the interdisciplinary NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (see Na Kilo Hoku no. 10).

Meech's specific role for the Deep Impact mission was to coordinate all of the Earth-based observations. She is now actively working on the scientific interpretation of the mission results.

Her interest in astrobiology arose quite naturally from her work with comets, since the water and organic molecules in comets are likely to have played a role in the development of life on Earth. The UH NAI involves over a dozen faculty from the IfA and the UH geology and chemistry departments, and 12 postdoctoral researchers working on various aspects of astrobiology, with special emphasis on tracing the history of water from its formation in the interstellar medium to its arrival on Earth and its role in the development of life.

Public information and outreach are important activities at the IfA, and Meech has devoted considerable effort to this area. She was the principal investigator for TOPS (Towards Other Planetary Systems), a five-year teacher enhancement program whose ambitious goal was to improve science education in Hawaii by enabling teachers to include astronomy in the science curriculum. This program, which was funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, included summer workshops for teachers, and the development of teaching materials and demonstrations. Meech is now extending it to include students and teachers working on the Deep Impact project (see "Deep Impact/Faulkes Telescope Workshop" on page 6) and on astrobiology.

Meech has won two prestigious prizes. In 1988, she received the Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy, and in 1994, the Harold C. Urey Prize of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). The American Association of University Women gives the Cannon Award annually to a woman who has made distinguished contributions to astronomy. The Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the AAS awards the Urey Prize for outstanding achievements in planetary science by a young scientist. In 1996, Asteroid 4367 was named "Meech" in her honor. She is active in DPS, and is president of Commission 51 on Bioastronomy (astrobiology) of the International Astronomical Union.

Born in Denver, Colorado, Meech graduated cum laude in space physics from Rice University. In 1987, she received her doctorate in planetary science from MIT and was hired as an assistant astronomer at IfA. In 2000, she attained the rank of astronomer, the research equivalent of full professor. Despite her heavy research and teaching responsibilities, Meech somehow finds time for hobbies and other activities. She is a keen scuba diver, kayaker, and hiker, a gourmet cook, and a pianist, and she has done some exploratory work in archaeoastronomy in Hawaii.