The Sound of Science

Mark Sykes, Ph.D., CEO and Director of the Planetary Science Institute.

The Sound of Science
It is not often you come across a planetary scientist who also is an opera singer. But that is the case with Mark Sykes, Ph.D., CEO and Director of the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) in Tucson. “I never thought I had to be just one thing,” Sykes reveals. “It is enriching to have a variety of interests, even if it means less sleep.

“I was always engaged in music,” he recalls. “My grandmother was a concert pianist and I can remember as a child sitting next to her on the piano bench listening to her play. We played duets together until she was 98.” Sykes has continued his love of music by performing as a bass/baritone in the chorus of Arizona Opera productions every year since 1984. “I have to have a musical outlet,” he says with a smile.

Sykes was born in Portland, Oregon, but as the son of an Air Force pilot, he lived in 14 places and attended four grade schools and three different high schools. Growing up, he had a strong interest in math and science and was particularly inspired by watching the Mercury astronauts. He received a B.A. in physics from the University of Oregon, a master’s in Electronic Science from the Oregon Graduate Institute and a Ph.D. in Planetary Sciences from the University of Arizona. Sykes also earned a law degree from UA. “I had scientist friends who couldn’t get grants and had to find other jobs, so I wanted to have a backstop, and I thought law was very interesting and worthwhile,” he notes.

In 1986, while he was a graduate student at UA, Sykes discovered comet dust trails. He also discovered rings of dust from asteroid collisions between Mars and Jupiter. “It’s very exciting to study something on a computer screen and realize you are the first to understand what you are seeing,” he observes.

Sykes became the CEO and director of PSI in 2004. “At PSI, we explore the solar system and are involved with almost all NASA planetary missions,” he relates. “We share our knowledge and discoveries with the scientific community and the public. We also provide professional development workshops for teachers.”

Founded by four Tucson scientists in 1972, PSI has grown to a staff of more than 100 people in 20 states and 10 countries. “PSI is one of the largest employers of planetary scientists in the world. At our headquarters here, we have a great team of scientists and administrative and information technology staff that work to support our community of scientists all over the world.”

As CEO and director, Sykes ensures PSI is compliant with regulations and statutes, works on contract negotiations, and interacts with officials at NASA, the White House and on Capitol Hill. He also finds time to work as a scientist; currently he is co-investigator on the NASA Dawn mission.

Dawn is a spacecraft that has already orbited around the asteroid Vesta (which is dry and volcanic) and is now on its way to orbit the dwarf planet Ceres (which has an icy interior). The $450 million mission hopes to determine what role that size and water play in the evolution of planets.

By the way, Sykes says “absolutely” there are other planets like Earth in the universe. In addition, he says that despite some misconceptions, “Pluto is indeed a planet! In fact, Pluto may be the most common kind of planet in the solar system.”

Sykes also is working on the Atsa Suborbital Observatory project at PSI. The project’s goal is to put a telescope on the back of a space plane that would travel to outer space and back during a short human-operated flight.

Sykes has been married for 17 years to Marilyn Guengerich, a senior program coordinator at Steward Observatory. “We are dog people, but we have a 19-year-old semi-feral cat named Neko, who decided about a year and a half ago that being an indoor cat with staff was not a bad gig,” Sykes says with a laugh.

His son Matthew, who is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, sang with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus while growing up. “In fact, when Matthew was a child, he and I sang together on stage in an opera,” Sykes says. “That is a very special memory.” They also built rockets together, including a rocket car, a rocket boat and a rocket submarine (which they launched into their pool).

Today, Sykes doesn’t have much down time — “my work is not a job, it’s a lifestyle” — but he does enjoy cooking and reading.

He has won a number of awards, but he is particularly proud of having an asteroid named after him: 4438 Sykes, which was discovered at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. — Wendy Sweet