Vincent F. Chevrier, Ph.D.

Planetary Science: An Exciting {New} Frontier

By Glenda Graves | Portrait by Meredith Mashburn

It’s not every day that one gets to talk space with a planetary scientist, much less a French planetary scientist. Vincent François Chevrier, Ph.D., works as an assistant researcher at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences, a research institute of the University of Arkansas.


Vincent was born in a suburb of Paris in 1978. His mother worked as a schoolteacher and his father was a graphic designer. He says that, like a lot of children, he wanted to grow up to be an astronaut He later dreamed of being a mathematician. “My uncle was a really good mathematician, and my aunt was a clinical psychiatrist,” Vincent says. “My grandparents were really into science, and my grandfather would give me math problems to solve as a child.” But eventually, he says, “I realized I was not a math prodigy, so I landed on geology. But I had always been fascinated by planets.”


Vincent’s family on his father’s side wanted him to be a medical doctor. He says, “I was pushed in that direction, but I have never really done what people want me to do. So, I ended up combining the earth sciences with my love for astronomy and did planetary sciences.”


He explains that students who are interested in planets will often start with astronomy, but he found that a background in geology was a much more efficient way to get him where he is now with planetary research. After studying 1996-2004 in France, he began looking for post doctorate work in planetary science. He attended a meeting where a presenter provided information about a post doctorate opportunity in Arkansas. Vincent applied and was selected. He made the decision to come to Arkansas and started here in October of 2005.


He laughs and says, “For anyone who knew Northwest Arkansas in 2005, you can imagine I thought where the heck am I going! It’s in the middle of nowhere! But I am still here! I did the post doc for two years and then got assistant professor in 2008.” He eventually was recruited by the chemistry department and now works with Ph.D. students in planetary sciences. He usually works with eight to 10 students each year.


The Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences is world-renowned and offers master’s and doctoral programs in which faculty and students design instruments and plan missions for the exploration of our solar system as well as others. In the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Planetary Simulations, Vincent and his team are working to simulate new worlds and planetary processes. Stainless steel tanks are filled with methane instead of water, snow is metallic, carbon monoxide freezes into ice and life struggles to survive in what humans on Earth consider lethal conditions.


Vincent’s main goal is to answer questions such as: What makes a planet inhabitable; what was Earth like before its atmosphere contained oxygen; and can water exist as a liquid in a place where it rarely gets above freezing? He then looks at the intersection of atmosphere and surface on Mars, Venus, Pluto and Titan — Saturn’s largest moon — for answers. Since scientists can’t visit these places, yet, the W.M. Keck lab allows them to do the next best thing: simulate those conditions in a contained space and see what happens. “The goal of the lab is to simulate the surface of planets, in particular how the surface of planets evolved over time, and to study chemical and physical conditions at the surface of planets,” he adds.

Vincent Chevrier works with students in the planetary simulation lab

Many people may not know that the U of A offers such a program, much less that the laboratory offers the largest atmospheric simulator of Titan in the world. Based on new data obtained from the simulator, Vincent and his colleagues were able to help scientists understand the interactions between Titan’s surface and atmosphere. His team continues to do billions of dollars of research that contributes to the scientific community.


“Not many colleges have this type of program,” says Vincent. “I have the best Ph.D. candidates on campus from all over the world.” While most of his colleagues are scientists at NASA, he says it’s a fairly small community and they all know one another. He prefers working in the world of academia, where he can focus on research and teaching future generations of scientists.


By focusing solely on research, Vincent can publish 10-15 scientific articles a year. He explains, “The primary job of NASA is to fly to space, but they need lab work done, too. They want to send the missions, but the science has to be there to back them up.” It’s the cutting-edge research of scientists such as Vincent that supports NASA and its missions.


When asked how many of his former students have gone on to work for NASA, Vincent laughs his warm laugh and says, “All of them!” He goes on to explain that, while some of his students have chosen to work in academia, they all begin with the dream of working for NASA.


The recent excitement surrounding space travel and exploration has made Vincent’s job a little more visible. “Communication and how the news gets out has gotten a lot better recently,” he says. “Announcements of discoveries are more common now. People get really excited, it makes them talk, and then it becomes easier for missions to be funded.”


Today, Vincent is proud to be doing this work in Northwest Arkansas. While speaking about the U of A, he says, “I’m very attached. This is my university. I have such strong connections here. I love Northwest Arkansas and am so happy to be here.” He has made a home of this place he once found so foreign. “This area reminds me of the best places I went to as a child. I love to canoe, go on walks in the forest and party with friends. This place allows for all of that.”


Even though Vincent still loves to visit France at least once a year, Fayetteville is his home. We are more than happy to have him here as a permanent resident. We look forward to more exciting news to come from Vincent and his researchers at the University of Arkansas. Don’t be surprised if it’s one of those planetary scientists who one day figures out how to sustain life on Titan!

Dr. Chevrier and Ph.D. students during a visit from Representative James Bridenstine, NASA Administrator.

NASA officials and Representative Steve Womack visit with Dr. Chevrier in the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Planetary Simulations.