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Catherine Neish
Picture of Catherine Neish
Catherine Neish
NASA Postdoctoral Fellow, Goddard Space Flight Center
"Through my work, I have been fortunate to see much of the world, attending conferences in locations ranging from Iceland to Hawaii to Australia."

This profile has been adapted in part from an original interview conducted by Susan Niebur, for the "Women in Planetary Science" website. To read the full original interview, click here.

Where are you from?
I have moved around a lot in my life, so this is a somewhat difficult question for me to answer! Broadly, I'm from Canada -- I was born in Ottawa and moved slowly westward as my father's job took him to new cities every few years. We eventually ended up in Penticton, British Columbia, which is where I graduated from high school. It's a beautiful town, nestled between two lakes in the mountains, and in the native Salish tongue, it means "a place to stay forever." I had some very supportive high school teachers there, who fostered my interest in space science, and who helped put me on a path to my present career.

"I'm particularly eager to get a glimpse
of Pluto as the New Horizons spacecraft
flies by this icy world in 2015."
Catherine Neish

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I'm not sure I could pinpoint one moment where I first made a connection with outer space. As a child, space science was one of many interests, along with music, track and field, and various languages. However, as I pursued these independent interests, astronomy always was a little extra thrilling for me. Some of my favorite moments involved going out into the mountains with the high school astronomy club and looking at stars with my teacher's 8-inch Newtonian telescope. Comet Hale-Bopp was a particularly bright object when I was in high school, and I hadn't realized how lucky I was to be able to gaze upon a brilliant comet every night from our back porch. These experiences, and those like them, inspired me to pursue a degree in space science. Now I can't imagine doing anything else!

How did you end up working in the space program?
As I mentioned, I have been interested in space science ever since I was a child. I was a voracious reader of all types of science fiction, including all of Arthur C. Clarke's novels. However, I did not become seriously interested in a career in space science until high school. In tenth grade, I competed in a space settlement competition sponsored by NASA-Ames Research Center (ARC). My "Space Station Terra Nova" won first prize in my age category. This gave me the opportunity to visit NASA Ames, and experience the bustle surrounding the landing of Pathfinder on Mars. Two years later, I won an essay contest sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency, and attended the International Space School in Houston, staying with astronaut Chris Hadfield and his family during my time in Houston. By then, I was hooked, and decided to major in astronomy as an undergraduate.

Fascinated by the movie and the novel "Contact," I applied for a summer research internship at Arecibo Observatory. There, I had my first taste of planetary science working with Ellen Howell and Mike Nolan researching asteroids with radar. I was fascinated with radar -- this was the first "active" astronomy I had ever seen. There you could tweak the buttons and knobs and learn different things about the asteroids, instead of simply collecting what they reflected from the sun.

During that summer, Ellen told me about her Alma Mater, the University of Arizona, and its strong planetary science program. I applied to their graduate program several months later, and was accepted.

As a second year graduate student, I started working with Ralph Lorenz, who was a Cassini RADAR team member. As a result, a large portion of my Ph.D. dissertation focused on radar observations of planetary surfaces, and in particular Titan, but also Earth and Venus.

Several months before I was scheduled to graduate, I received a mass email advertising a new postdoc position at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), working with radar data from the Moon. Though I knew very little about the Moon at that time, I hoped my radar experience would be attractive to the Miniature Radio-Frequency (Mini-RF) team. Luckily, it was, and I started working there shortly thereafter. By learning to work with lunar data, I opened myself up to new research projects, new collaborations and new funding sources that I wouldn't have had working with Titan data alone.

Who inspired you?
I have been supported and encouraged by many people: teachers, family, mentors, classmates and friends.

However, I think most of my inspiration has come from fictional characters, in books and in television shows and movies. Through reading Carl Sagan's "Contact," I was introduced to a character that seemed to embody the type of person I wanted to be -- a passionate, well-traveled scientist who searched the skies for unknown species on distant planets. Fiction is a great source of inspiration. It can depict the world as you hope it will become, and can motivate you to make that world part of reality.

What is a Postdoctoral Fellow?
Postdoctoral Fellowships are short-term positions, used as a type of apprenticeship immediately after a person graduates with a Ph.D. They tend to last several years, before the person finds a permanent position in academia, government or industry. Often these positions come with quite a bit of freedom to pursue independent research interests. In essence, you are being paid to learn!

In my case, my scientific interests lie primarily in the area of planetary radar. Radar represents the best way to observe the surface of planets with large opaque atmospheres (such as Venus and Titan) leading to a better understanding of their surface morphology. It also provides a wealth of information about the surface being imaged, including topography, composition and roughness. In particular, the unusual radar properties of ice may lead to its detection in the permanently shadowed regions at the poles of the Moon, which has implications for future manned exploration of that body.

To investigate this area of interest, I have been involved with several spacecraft missions. I am currently a member of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's (LRO) Mini-RF science team, and an associate member of the Cassini RADAR team.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
I think my favorite moments in my career are when I discover something new, or see something that no one else has ever seen before. I think this is why I find Titan so exciting to study -- prior to 2004, no one had ever seen its surface! Amazingly, eight years into the Cassini mission, there are still large areas that have not been imaged at high resolution. Every time we get a new RADAR strip, I eagerly scan through it, looking for weird and wonderful new features. I look forward to these opportunities with each new spacecraft mission. I'm particularly eager to get a glimpse of Pluto as the New Horizons spacecraft flies by this icy world in 2015.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Planetary science is a very broad field, with work ranging from laboratory analysis to computer modeling to remote sensing (and so on), on topics ranging from geology to astrobiology to chemistry to atmospheric physics (and so on). My advice is to "try out" as many of these sub-fields as possible, through high school and undergraduate internships, and later, graduate course-work and training, to determine what it is that really excites you about planetary science. Then, find a graduate program that can support that interest, or gives you the flexibility to try out new fields (if you're still undecided). You'll be the most successful if you really love what you're doing.

It's also extremely important to network, and the people you meet through your graduate work are probably some of the most important parts of that network. Besides this, postdoctoral positions can be a good way to expand your expertise beyond what you completed during your Ph.D.

What do you do for fun?
I'm an explorer at heart. I love to explore new worlds, whether in our solar system, or here on Earth. During my summer in Arecibo, I learned how to SCUBA dive, and immediately took to our underwater world. In many ways, SCUBA diving is a lot like being an astronaut: exploring an alien environment, weightless and reliant on external sources of oxygen. SCUBA diving also gives me an excuse to indulge in one of my other passions -- travel. Through my work, I have been fortunate to see much of the world, attending conferences in locations ranging from Iceland to Hawaii to Australia. Earlier this year, I traveled to Antarctica as a tourist. This was a real thrill -- since like the ocean -- it is one of the last unexplored places on Earth.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
My advice would be exercise your communication skills whenever you get a chance; skills such as writing, public speaking and working in teams. These are skills that are often not explicitly taught in school, especially in math-intensive degree programs, but I would argue, represent half of your work as a scientist. You can find ways to practice these skills outside the classroom by getting involved in student government, participating in public outreach, writing for a newspaper or a blog, and so on. In my own case, I spent many years as a member of the graduate and professional student council at the University of Arizona, learning how to articulate the needs of the students to the university administration, and then negotiate solutions to those needs.


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Last Updated: 12 June 2013


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Last Updated: 12 Jun 2013