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'Leap into the unknown' brought newly named Regents Professor to ASU

Meenakshi Wadhwa recognized with latest honor for leadership in space exploration

Portrait of woman with long brown hair and blue jacket taken outside on ASU Tempe campus

Meenakshi Wadhwa is a leader in space exploration, one reason she has been chosen as a 2024 ASU Regents Professor. Photo by Armand Saavedra/ASU

February 22, 2024

The plane landed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Meenakshi Wadhwa stepped into the terminal.

She was 21 years old and a recent graduate of Punjab University in India where she had grown up, her father a member of the Air Force, her mother a homemaker.

She had turned down an opportunity to work for India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and live, as she put it, a “comfortable life, being close to my parents.”

But the job didn’t excite her. She wanted to emigrate to the United States to study planetary geology.

So here she was, in O’Hare with $50 in her pocket, waiting for her aunt to pick her up.

There was just one problem.

Phone calls from India to the United States were expensive, so Wadhwa’s father mailed a letter to his sister, asking her to meet Wadhwa at the airport. Only the letter never reached its destination.

Wadhwa called her aunt. There was no answer. She kept trying, every hour. No answer.

She didn’t have enough money for a hotel room. She couldn’t move up the flight she had to St. Louis — where she would study at Washington University — because no one at the university was expecting her a week early.

For 36 hours she wandered around the airport, calling her aunt so often she left “about 40 messages.” She rarely slept and ate little. Finally, her aunt answered the phone. She had been out of town for the weekend.

“It was almost like living in a parallel universe where I was on this big adventure,” Wadhwa said. “It was literally like Tom Hanks in that movie ('The Terminal').”

Wadhwa laughs as she tells the story, describing her decision to come to the U.S. as a “leap into the unknown.”

Video by Academic Enterprise Communications

Learn about the 2024 Regents Professors

Shakespeare expert Jonathan Bate.

Biocultural anthropologist Alexandra Brewis.

Supply chain management scholar Thomas Choi.

Leadership recognition

Those are perfect words to describe Wadhwa’s role as director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

And now she has been named one of four Regents Professors for 2024. Fewer than 3% of all ASU faculty carry the title, and those named must be recognized by peers nationally and internationally.

“This kind of recognition means a lot to me just from the perspective that ASU has given me a lot,” said Wadhwa, who is also the principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Mars Sample Return Mission. “I’m really honored, of course, but I don’t really feel this is something that sets me apart in any way because a lot of my colleagues are really so deserving as well.”

Sally Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise, calls Wadhwa a “leader.”

“She’s done a lot of things as an individual scientist, but I think she’s also seen by the nation as a person who’s helping set the objectives, the strategy, the questions, the places we should go and what we should do when we get there,” Morton said.

“That’s different than just responding to the government saying, ‘We want a project on X.’ She’s saying what X is for the nation and the world.”  

Morton joked that Wadhwa is always pushing for investment and partnership for the School of Earth and Space Exploration, so much so that, “we’re not always able to do everything she wants. But with everything she does, she has the students at heart. She’s an educator. It’s easy sometimes with top scientists to think of students as an appendage we have to deal with. But I don’t think (Wadhwa) thinks that way.”

Where it all started

Being named a Regents Professor continues Wadhwa’s improbable journey, a journey that started as a young girl growing up in Chandigarh, located at the base of the Himalayas in northern India.

“It was a really amazing place to just be able to explore the outdoors,” Wadhwa said. “I loved doing that. I was definitely an outdoorsy person from the very beginning. I loved exploring and picking up and collecting rocks, things like that.”

Wadhwa’s father, an Air Force veteran, was posted to a different base within India every two or three years. Moving constantly wore on Wadhwa, as it would any child, but it also fueled a curiosity to learn about the different cultures in India, and since then, about the world around her.

That curiosity was also encouraged by her parents, who didn’t adhere to cultural expectations in India.

“The culture in India is such that the expectations for women are very different for men,” Wadhwa said. “I have to give a lot of credit to my parents that they did not really impose any of those expectations on me and my sister, which was really incredible for the time and the place.

“I really don’t think I could have done any of what I’ve been able to do, like moving halfway across the world to go to graduate school. I know a lot of Indian parents who wouldn’t have allowed their boys to leave.”

Wadhwa wasn’t sure what she wanted her field of study to be when she left Chicago for Washington University. Then, one day, a professor handed her a meteorite from Mars. It was one of those “forks in the road” that Wadhwa likes to cite about her career.

“She said to me, 'I just got these Mars meteorites and maybe you want to look at these,’” Wadhwa recalled. “I was like, ‘What?’ I had no idea there were meteorites from Mars.

“When I looked at them through the microscope, they actually looked very similar to some Earth rocks that I was familiar with, and that was just kind of mind-blowing, to think about these rocks, which superficially look very much like Earth rocks but when you study their chemistry in detail, can really tell you something fundamentally about how Mars as a planet evolved. That was just really exciting to me.”

So began a — let’s go ahead and say it — meteoric love affair that still is going strong; so much so that Wadhwa’s contributions to meteoritics and planetary science were recognized when asteroid 8356 was named 8356 Wadhwa.

Wadhwa, who has been in the School of Earth and Space Exploration since its inception in 2006 (she was named director in 2019) is particularly proud of the interdisciplinary nature of the school.

“I think the school is a unique place,” Wadhwa said. “If you were to look across the landscape of planetary science programs and engineering programs, I really don’t think there is another place that combines the different disciplines that we do. It’s a purposeful combination.

“Sometimes, engineers and scientists can be in an adversarial type of mode. This school really shows the strength of what you can do when you really sort of bring them together in a harmonious way.”

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is involved in more than 25 NASA missions or instruments in development, including the Mars Sample Return mission, which is expected to bring the first sample of Mars material back to earth in 2033.

“It’s our nearest term opportunity to really answer the question: Are we alone in the universe?” Wadhwa said.

It’s a tantalizing prospect for Wadhwa, but one that requires a nine-year wait and a world of patience.

Sort of like sitting in O’Hare airport for 36 hours, waiting for the rest of your life to begin.

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