Astrobiologist and Polar Oceanographer
Dr. Britney Schmidt, associate professor at Cornell University, specializes in studying ice on Earth and other planets. A native of Tucson, Arizona, she received a BS in Physics and PhD in Geophysics & Space Physics. She and her team build robotic tools, including the underwater vehicle Icefin. Schmidt is a member of NASA’s Europa Clipper Mission, has conducted 11 polar field expeditions, and has been awarded over $25 million in grants. Schmidt serves on the Board of Directors of The Planetary Society, is a founding co-director of the Scientific Society for Astrobiology. Schmidt has been recognized for teaching and research, including AGU’s Nye Lectureship and the NASA Early Career Fellowship. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2023.
My work explores the Earth, especially its poles, in an effort to understand and protect our home while helping us take the next steps beyond it. My work has two themes: the first is understanding how climate change is affecting the loss of ice, driving sea level rise and changes to the ocean. Ice shelves are a part of the climate system that is particularly unknown and delicate and these are collapsing as the ocean warms them. The second theme is understanding other planets by studying our own, helping to lay the groundwork for searching for life the universe. Part of the human experience is to question who we are and where we are going, and space exploration flows from that; I have always believed that finding life beyond Earth would help people look beyond themselves.
It was the promise of oceans beyond Earth that brought me to Antarctica in the first place, trying to understand and develop the tools that we would need to one day reach worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa, but I quickly was overwhelmed by the impressive power, vastness, and yet fragility of the Antarctic. Until I stepped foot on the ice I didn’t fully comprehend how far we have come and yet how far we have to go to understand, respect and care for our own planet. It became clear to me that so much more could be done to conduct this necessary exploration of our own backyard in a way that respects and benefits our home as well. Through building new robotic exploration tools, our work seeks to acquire data in areas that cannot otherwise be measured, laying the foundation simultaneously for responding to climate change as a social imperative that will define life on our world, as well as the search for life outside it.
“Through building new robotic exploration tools, our work seeks to acquire data in areas that cannot otherwise be measured, laying the foundation simultaneously for responding to climate change as a social imperative that will define life on our world, as well as the search for life outside it.“
The most meaningful aspect of my work has been doing hard work in challenging places with incredible people. I’ve been particularly honored to work with students, sharing the challenges of field work and space exploration with team members just beginning their careers, helping bring new people into the field and broadening the participation in science and exploration. I have brought 15 students on polar field programs; I’ve brought more than 30 students on field programs in other parts of the world. More than 50 students were involved in developing Icefin, from all different backgrounds. More than 100 have been involved in spacecraft projects I have lead. My team is also multidisciplinary, with scientists and engineers spanning electrical to mechanical to optical engineering and glaciology to microbiology to astronomy.
By building teams with broad membership and an inclusive, group-oriented structure, we find innovative ways to meet our challenges by bringing all perspectives to the same table. I’ve now seen my undergrads and grads go on to careers of their own, many in space related fields, and new students and new staff are joining the team. The achievements of the work—papers, presentations, and impact beyond science—are both impossible and less meaningful without the incredible people I’ve been able to work with.