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Life on Mars is the next challenge for Purdue online MS in Communication student

Nov 14, 2023 | Online - Master of Science in Communication


Paule applied, went through the interview process and was chosen for the mission. Now, she will be serving as the crew journalist and executive officer on the Purdue crew inhabiting the Mars Desert Research Station from December 24 to January 6.

When Purdue graduate student Sara Paule saw the email dangling an opportunity to spend a couple weeks on Mars over her holiday break, she was intrigued — to say the least.

“Immediately my jaw dropped open and I thought that is 100% the kind of insanity I want to be involved in,” Paule said.

Paule applied, went through the interview process and was chosen for the mission. Now, she will be serving as the crew journalist and executive officer on the Purdue crew inhabiting the Mars Desert Research Station from December 24, 2023 to January 6, 2024. A student in Purdue’s 100% online Master of Science in Communication program, Paule is the first online student from Purdue to be chosen as a crew member and the first from Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication.

Purdue will fill two of the 20 missions scheduled in the station this cycle, and is one of the few groups that inhabit the facility recurrently. Purdue’s crews include members from 10 departments and five countries with an even split among women and men, said Kshitij Mall, the Purdue aeronautics and astronautics post-doctoral researcher heading mission control back at Purdue while the Purdue crews are in residence.

While the Mars Desert Research Station is not actually on Mars, in many respects it might as well be. The compact, self-contained facility sits in a remote spot in Utah surrounded by terrain not so different from the scenery on the Red Planet. The station, owned and operated by the Mars Society, is a hub for research into numerous aspects of what it will be like for humans to live and work on Mars.

The crews who rotate through spend their deployments in isolation with a two-hour window of communication to the outside world each day (mostly for communicating with their mission control team) just as if they were 140 million miles from Earth. They forego using their cell phones for the duration, except in a real emergency, and they don’t leave the habitat other than in bulky “space” suits on well-planned external missions. With a limited 400-gallon water supply, lingering in the shower is out of the question and they prepare a diet consisting largely of dehydrated food judiciously. All crew members have assigned duties to advance the overall mission and each has an individual research project.

Paule’s project will look at the elements of effective communication in a tight timeframe. That research is in addition to her dual duties as crew journalist chronicling daily life on the station and as executive officer assisting the mission commander with logistics, plus sharing chores such as cooking and cleaning.

“I think it’s a great chance to put myself out of my own comfort zone and learn some more amazing skills,” Paule said.

That’s the kind of outlook Paule brings to her Purdue online master’s program, in which she is focusing on communication and leadership.

“As Sara’s instructor, I could tell that Sara’s interest was in skill-building and knowledge growth, not just a checkmark of courses completed,” said Mike Kohler, a lecturer in the Brian Lamb School of Communication. “Sara thrived on examining the real-world implications of case studies, considering how the concepts and practices might apply to her professional life.”

Paule’s background and expertise already have been valuable in developing applications to fund her crew’s mission, said Adriana Brown, who will serve as commander of crew 289, on which Paule is serving. The crews must raise money to support their travel and other expenses for their stay.

“She’s been fantastic,” Brown said. “She’s just extremely organized.”

Paule earned her bachelor’s in chemistry and worked in research and development in the field before embarking on the path that led to her current position as director of grants and sponsored research at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. She had always wanted to earn an advanced degree but wasn’t sure in what and, approaching age 40, figured the time had come. In researching possibilities, a master’s in communication seemed to dovetail nicely with the communications-heavy work she does professionally and might do in the future as her career evolves.

She has an interest in internal communication, how to keep employees happy and informed, facilitate work, and align folks with the mission and vision of large organizations with people spread globally. Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication and its online Graduate Certificate in Leadership Communication appeared to be a good fit.

With a full-time job, a husband who’s a tenured professor at Earlham and two cats; she needed a flexible program that worked around the rest of a busy life. Purdue’s 100% online communication master’s offered that.

“I’m an adult human and I have an established life and an established family here in this location. I can’t just get up and go elsewhere to pursue education at this point in my life,” Paule said.

The timing of her stint in the Mars Desert Research Station worked as well. Earlham is on break then and, although missing the holidays with her husband and extended family will be hard, they’re encouraging and excited for her.

She says she still considers herself a scientist at heart who’s always had an interest in space exploration and who, like a lot of kids, once thought about what it would be like to be an astronaut riding a rocket into space. That time may be gone, but she gets to experience life on Mars.

“Having a small role to play in terms of the human scientific endeavor, that feels amazing,” Paule said. “This is a great, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

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