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Louise Prockter
Picture of Louise Prockter
Louise Prockter
Supervisor of the Planetary Exploration Group, Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory
"In 2003, I took over as an instrument scientist on the Mercury Duel Imaging System (MDIS) camera. I have worked on the MESSENGER mission ever since."

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 am from the United Kingdom and grew up in London. I moved to the north of England for my undergraduate degree, and then to the U.S. for graduate school. I currently live in Washington D.C., which I love.

"Be tenacious. If you know you
want to do something, go and find
someone who will help you do it."
Louise Prockter

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
My family didn't have a huge amount of money when I was growing up, so we would spend our weekends doing things like visiting art galleries and museums in London, which were free. Our favorites were the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.

Although I grew up in the city, both my parents were big nature lovers. We went on a lot of nature walks in and around London, and our holidays were spent camping. So, from a very young age, my siblings and I had a sense of wonder about the world.

One of the places we visited regularly was Stiffkey Marsh, a beautiful salt marsh along the Norfolk coast, about 120 miles north of London. This rural coast is not built up and at night the sky is spectacular, with the Milky Way clearly visible. My parents would point out the constellations to us, and I soon learned to find Orion, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, and how to locate the North Star using the Plough (or as it is called in the U.S., the Big Dipper).

How did you end up working in the space program?
I actually had an early career in sales and marketing, and then went back to school for environmental science and geophysics at age 27. It wasn't until my final year at Lancaster University that I took two classes in planetary science. It was at that moment that I had the "ah-ha!" moment -- planetary science was what I wanted to do with my life. I had already decided I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., and my advisors in the U.K. (Lionel Wilson and John Shepherd) suggested I apply to programs in the U.S., since there are many more opportunities in planetary science over here. That is how I ended up in the planetary geology department at Brown University, initially studying volcanoes on Venus and comparing them to terrestrial mid-ocean ridge volcanoes.

During my second year, while finishing my master's degree at Brown, I was trying to decide in which direction I wanted to go. At this time, the Galileo spacecraft had just gone into orbit around Jupiter and was starting to send back data from Ganymede. My colleagues, Bob Pappalardo and Geoff Collins, were looking at Ganymede's grooved terrain and trying to understand how it had formed. However, in addition to the grooved terrain images, there were many images of dark terrain on Ganymede. No one was looking at these images because they were generally considered to be less interesting than those of the grooved terrain. I asked my advisor Jim Head, one of the co-investigators on the mission, if I could look at these cratered dark areas on Ganymede. He said "yes," and I started mapping out just one little area of dark terrain. I became completely absorbed in this dark terrain and this study turned into my very first science paper.

Although I wasn't officially on the Galileo team (I was just one of the many graduate students working on the mission), I was allowed to go to team meetings. By attending these meetings I was able to meet a lot of people with whom I still work today. (Many of us met on the project as graduate students and we all sort of progressed in the profession together.) It was incredibly exciting and I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my career involved in missions.

Galileo was such a challenging mission, with the antenna failure and problems with the limitations of the tape recorder. We "cut our teeth" on having such limited resources: We had to squeeze every last drop of science out of every little bit of data -- literally -- that came down. The Galileo mission was incredibly good training for me. We all really learned to be flexible on that mission. That was also where I learned that space exploration is sometimes hard and things can go wrong.

Had I not had the opportunity to work on the Galileo mission, I probably wouldn't have been as attractive as a new hire when I applied to work at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) -- I would have been like any other graduate student with a planetary geology degree.

My first position at APL was as a postdoc on the NEAR mission. The spacecraft should have gone into orbit around the asteroid Eros in February 1999, but due to technical issues, the orbit insertion was delayed for a year. This was perfect timing for me, because it meant that I arrived at APL just a couple of months before NEAR's encounter with Eros, and therefore I was able to be involved as an imaging team associate throughout the mission. My job was to look at the hundreds of images that came down from the spacecraft each day, and then verify their quality.

After the NEAR mission concluded in 2001, I started working as deputy to the instrument scientist (Scott Murchie) of the MESSENGER camera: the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS). When Scott became principal investigator of the CRISM instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I took over as the instrument scientist on the camera, in 2003. I learned a lot more about hardware, calibration, optical design, focal planes, you name it, than I had ever expected to from that position. I have worked on the MESSENGER mission ever since.

Who inspired you?
It's hard to pick any one person who inspired me as there have been many. Both my parents worked hard, but my mum was always pretty amazing in that she had a demanding, high-level teaching job and yet still did all the work involved in bringing up three kids. I think I realized early on that roles for women were changing (this was in the 1970s), and that although my mum still had the traditional "mum" role, she had a career as well. From this, I knew that I could have a career doing pretty much whatever I wanted if I was willing to work for it.

What is a Planetary Group Supervisor?
I actually have three official jobs:

I am a deputy project scientist and co-investigator on the MESSENGER mission. This means that I help with things like preparing science reports for NASA, extended mission proposals and so on, and I also get to do scientific analysis when I can find the time.

For the last three years I have also been the deputy study scientist for an ongoing NASA concept study to investigate a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. (I recently took over as the chair of the Science Definition Team (SDT) for that same study. The SDT works with the study's technical team to define the science that would be done by a Europa mission, making scientific trades and scoping out instruments, orbital operation plans and so on.) This mission was given a very high priority in both of the last two Planetary Decadal Surveys and we hope that some funding will be found for it at some point.

My third and final job (and official APL title) is that I supervise the Planetary Exploration Group at APL. This means that I manage about 30 planetary scientists, helping to make sure that they have enough funding and everything they need in order to produce fantastic science. I also make sure that our flight projects and instruments are fully staffed with the right people. I consider myself extremely lucky to work with such talented and interesting people. My job involves a lot of long hours and travel, but it is never boring.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
It's hard to pick just one, but some highlights include: going to the bottom of the ocean in the submersible Alvin; seeing my first paper in print, which made me feel like a "real" scientist for the first time; the excitement I felt when APL called to offer me a postdoc position (this was a job I wanted more than anything); going to Barrow, Alaska for a fantastic Europa workshop run by the late, great Ron Greeley; and seeing the first stunning image of the previously unseen hemisphere of Mercury on MESSENGER's first flyby of the innermost planet -- I was so thrilled that the image was perfect, and so relieved that it was exactly in the center of the field of view, as we had planned it!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Be tenacious. If you know you want to do something, go and find someone who will help you do it. I have benefited from having some amazing mentors who introduced me to influential people and encouraged me to publish and present papers at conferences. If the person you're working with isn't helping you along the path you want to be on, then go and find someone else who will. And don't be afraid to try and don't give up -- be annoying until you get what you want.

You don't have to be a professor to be successful. There are many job opportunities in this field, especially for people with advanced degrees. We need good policy people. We need people who can help promote the importance of science and research to lawmakers. We need people at NASA Headquarters.

To work on missions, it really helps to be somewhere where there's someone doing mission work. You can now be a student and also work on a mission, which generally was not the case in the past, but now there are a lot of opportunities with such programs as Mars and Discovery.

What do you do for fun?
I study and teach yoga.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Go for it! These are all areas from which you can go into a lot of different directions and can do something significant in the world.


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Last Updated: 3 January 2013


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Last Updated: 3 Jan 2013