Ali Bramson still recalls how happy she was to go to space camp at the Kennedy Space Center as a fifth-grader in Verona.
“I cried, I was so excited,” she told the Press.
It was an easy moment to recall when she stood in the Florida NASA base again about 15 years later, in the midst of working toward her PhD in planetary science, as she watched the Mars MAVEN rover launch — this time “with a VIP badge.”
Next week, the 2007 Verona Area High School graduate will share with the Verona community part of that experience, and the rest of the work she’s done on the topic during a presentation at the Verona Area Community Theater building, 103 Lincoln St.
Bramson said the idea for the local presentation was her father’s, and it seemed a good way to share her work with family, friends and former teachers who could not travel to the University of Arizona to watch her defend her dissertation July 31. She received her PhD the next month, and is still working at the university on her post-doctorate.
“What if you give a version of your talk in Wisconsin so that all these people that have supported you and everything over the years can still see what you’ve been working on?” Bramson recalled her dad asking.
“The Verona Area School District is amazing and I’m really appreciative of everything (I learned there),” she added.
Bramson said she began saying she wanted to be an astronaut at 4-years-old. And while she doesn’t go to space herself, she feels “so fortunate” to have found a field that is “as close as I could get to being an astronaut while being ... a scientist and staying here on earth.”
“Part of me wants to go back and tell my 4-year-old self, ‘You’re gonna have the coolest job, stay on this path,’” she said. “At the same time, 4-year-old me knew this was gonna work out.”
She hopes the talk here in Verona, and her future work in what she hopes is a mix of education and research at a university, can help build support for NASA and space exploration.
“If we didn’t have taxpayer support, then we wouldn’t have NASA and we wouldn’t be exploring space,” she said. “I just want to get people excited about NASA and wanting to support science and space and exploration.”
Starting with space
After graduating from VAHS, Bramson enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, something she knew she’d do her entire childhood – so much so that it was the only college she applied to.
Her work there actually began before her freshman year, though, as a Verona neighbor of hers connected her with a lab on campus doing research on environmental chemistry and the effects of nanoparticles. But she found it wasn’t for her, even if getting into research was valuable.
“I didn’t love working in a lab,” she recalled.
She eventually found her way to the astrophysics department, where she began doing research on galaxy structure that became her honors thesis. While that was more interesting than the previous lab, years later she discovered planetary science through a pair of summer research experiences and a conference.
“I’m studying space but I’m getting to see pictures and data from other planets in our own solar system that we’re sending robots to and we could maybe get to one day,” she recalled thinking. “It felt more down-to-earth than the galaxy stuff.”
That was confirmed when she spent time in 2010 at California’s SETI Institute, where she studied the lava flows on one of the moons of Jupiter — and realized how much she loved it.
“This is insane,” she remembers thinking. “This is so cool. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
With that realization in hand, Bramson looked toward the next step: graduate school.
She had found that to pursue any work in the planetary science field, she would have to get a PhD, and Arizona was “one of the iconic places to study planets,” she said.
The department’s existence is one of the most attractive parts, she said, as at most schools, it’s a “small niche field” within a larger department. But at Arizona, it’s entirely its own.
“We run NASA missions,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be involved in studying the surface of other planets using spacecraft … and that’s exactly what I’ve gotten to do.”
She’s gotten to do enough of it that “Spacecraft” is listed under her “Skills” section on the curriculum vitae on her website.
“It’s so cool,” she said. “Multiple times throughout a week or even a day, I’m like, ‘Holy s**t, I can’t believe I get to do this.’”
Projects she’s worked on have included picking up a sample from an asteroid and studying ice deposits on Mars, which turned out to be a “hot topic” today and something that will be key to understanding “our ability to hopefully use the ice if we ever send humans to Mars.”
“The fact that I get to be a part of that whole thing is really exciting,” she said.
She hopes to pass on that excitement to others in the future. Bramson said she wants to work at a university, ideally with a mix of research and teaching to help bring others into the field.
“Anyone with any skill set, if they’re dedicated to it, could be working for NASA on spacecraft,” she said. “I had a really amazing educational experience … so I would love to become a mentor to other students who are interested in space.”
Back to Verona
One of the parts Bramson is most excited about for her upcoming presentation is that it’ll be given in the VACT building.
She was part of the group while living here – earning a scholarship upon her graduation – and got to see the group’s new building while on vacation here shortly after it opened.
It’s especially fitting because the lessons she learned there have been unexpectedly helpful in her science career so far, giving her skills “from being on stage and getting over stage fright and then also doing stage managing and orchestrating lots of different components and bringing them together in one big project,” she said.
The same is true of the schools here, she added, even beyond her science classes.
“Presenting and writing about research is really important and I didn’t necessarily appreciate that growing up, but I’m really grateful that I got writing and presentation skills in Verona,” she said.
She specifically pointed to teachers Hope Mikkelson in high school, Rick Kisting in middle school and Krista Nelson and Jennie Clement in elementary school as people she credits with sparking her interest in science, though there are many others who helped her along the way, she added.
“I have several teachers that I remember especially fondly,” she said. “I just got such a well-rounded education, not just in science and math. It made me a critical thinker.”
She’s hoping the presentation can show some students here that anyone can get involved in space programs, noting that NASA even needs writers and artists to help get its messages out to the public.
“Anyone can do it if they just keep going in school,” she paused, “and don’t mind staying in school for an extra six years after they’re done with undergrad.”