This profile has been adapted from an original interview conducted by Susan Niebur for the Women in Planetary Science website. To read the full interview, click here.
Where are you from?
|"My mom told me to imagine all of the people |
and job types that were involved in getting the
astronauts to the Moon's surface -- no matter
what I was interested in; there was a place
for me, if I wanted it."
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
One of my first memories as a kid was watching Neil Armstrong land on the Moon during the summer of 1969. My family and I watched the descent live on our black-and-white TV. I remember my mom talking to me about all that it took to get us to the Moon and how I could be part of the space program if I wanted to some day. My mom told me to imagine all of the people and job types that were involved in getting the astronauts to the Moon's surface -- no matter what I was interested in; there was a place for me, if I wanted it. With regard to science, she kept up that mantra throughout my childhood, paving the way for my interest in science.
How did you end up working in the space program?
I started out in Earth sciences -- paleontology and organic geochemistry. As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I got involved in a research project examining a new ceratopsian dinosaur and from then on, I was hooked! At the same time I started working in the local geology museum, developing education programs and exhibits, which I found exciting and meaningful. I went from Wisconsin to Harvard and got my Ph.D. with Stephen Jay Gould there in 1991.
After post docs at the University of Bristol, the University of Carolina and Indiana University I headed to a faculty position at the University of Massachusetts. I eventually left the University of Massachusetts, looking to find a better fit. During my time in Massachusetts, I learned that I was a good strategist, particularly when it came to federal funding (e.g., NSF, NASA, DoE). And the more I thought about it, the more the idea of science education as a direction appealed to me.
After a few positions I began working for the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). When I started at LASP, they didn't have an education and public outreach (E/PO) program. I had 80 scientists, 120 engineers and mission operations specialists -- all working for great instrument programs and missions -- largely in planetary sciences and heliophysics. At LASP I learned the terrain of NASA E/PO -- no easy feat! Eventually, I added some great staff. Together, we built the LASP E/PO program from scratch to the third largest E/PO program (outside of NASA centers) and had a 90 percent proposal success rate. At LASP, I also got to expand my areas of interest into media affairs and communication strategies. I couldn't have asked for a better environment to learn about E/PO.
In 2009, I had an opportunity that was too good to turn down. I left LASP and started my own business. I took on contracts with two of the NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Forums (Planetary and Heliophysics) to return to my undergraduate teaching roots. I am charged with building a network of undergraduate teaching faculty and providing supporting structure for them (e.g., workshops, clearinghouses, etc.). I also have kept my hands in NASA mission E/PO through Juno (launching to Jupiter in August, 2011) and SAGE (currently in competition for New Frontiers, it would land on the surface of Venus). Having my own business allows me to work on selected programs, while being able to be home a little more often and spend time with my husband and children Nicolas and Sophia. I couldn't ask for more!
Who inspired you?
Probably my greatest influence growing up was my grandfather. He was an artist and self-taught engineer. (Weird point of fact: He invented the machine that first wrapped the Drumstick ice cream cones -- as a result, we always had them in the freezer.) He lived an intellectually curious life: He was interested in reading everything about everything, and listening to everyone's point of view. He was more conservative than I am, so we would argue late into the night, taking sides on almost any issue with great joy and abandon -- sometimes playing devil's advocate just to enjoy the verbal engagement.
I also remember sitting with my grandfather on the shore of Lake Michigan when I was about three years old and watching the waves roll in. He talked about how the wave action over thousands and millions of years had rounded the stones on the beach and how wind and water and ice had carved our landscapes. He shaped my view of how the world evolved and works.
What is an Executive Director of Emily A. CoBabe & Associates, Inc.?
I am the executive director for my own company: Emily A. CoBabe & Associates, Inc. We offer management expertise and consulting services for public engagement and science education programs, particularly those supported by NASA. My job is to sift through opportunities that arise and create a cogent program for the group (myself and a number of contractors), which is focused on creating science, math and engineering programs at the K-12 level, working with undergraduate teaching faculty and developing education opportunities in the emerging commercial space industry.
As part of this work, I am the higher education lead for both the Planetary Science and Heliophysics SMD E/PO Forums, and the lead of the SMD Higher Education Working Group. In addition, I am the education lead for the Juno mission to Jupiter, and I work with the NASA Lunar Science Institute on media professional development programs and strategic education planning.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
I'm not sure I have a favorite "moment" in my career. Professionally speaking, I would say that when I found STEM education through NASA, I finally felt like I had found a home. I'm a strategist at heart and more than a little geeky when it comes to developing and funding education program frameworks and pathways that lead to successful STEM education programs. I like the intricacies of the NASA E/PO system and love finding ways to develop great STEM education programs and products that meet national needs and represent the best of what educational research tells us works for students.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
1) Ask yourself early and often: "What do I want?" My experience is that my answer to these questions changed over time. If I had asked this question earlier, I might have found education earlier. Though that said, I'm not sorry for the path I've taken -- it's given me a very rich tapestry of experiences to draw upon.
2) Make sure that you love what you do and how you do it. As my mom has often said: "This is not a dress rehearsal." I don't get to do this over again. I want to make sure that I love what I do and that I have the lifestyle that I want for myself. At the end of the day, if I'm not happy, it doesn't matter what other people think.
3) Have a plan! Some of us get to where we want to be by chance and luck. However, I have discovered that it is far easier to make my own luck by having a plan, no matter how vague. Sometimes the plan can be just a notion, but I have found that my notions noodle around in the back of my head, and often emerge fully formed and ready to go when I need them. I try to think of the plan in terms of the "big picture" -- since I depend on federal dollars for support, it's important that my projects meet the needs of the agencies to which I'm likely to propose.
4) Does the plan make sense for you and your skills? Even when I have a plan, I try to take a cold, hard look at my skill set and see if it makes sense. I once thought about writing a history of the NASA sounding rocket program -- LASP was heavily involved, the entire program captured my imagination. However, I'm not a natural historian; that attention to detail isn't my strong suit. In other words, I might love to be an artist, but I can't paint worth a darn ...
5) Don't be afraid to change the plan! What worked for me at 20 years old, didn't work for me at 30 -- and that didn't work for me at 40. I expect that the plan I have now probably won't work for me 10 years from now!
What do you do for fun?
The older I get, the more fun I seem to be having! My kids are seven and nine, so they are at a great age to go out and explore. We spend a lot of time outdoors in the Rocky Mountains -- I love to go off-road and get to places that no one else can get to. I'm also really interested in farm-to-table cooking. I covet the time I get to spend in the garden, where we grow a good chunk of our vegetables every summer. The kids have started getting into making jams and pickles, which is a hoot. We even made our own bacon and pancetta last year. The kids are currently begging for chickens so we can have fresh eggs!
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Again, be sure to ask yourself early on what you want to be when you grow up. After graduating, I did all the things that one is supposed to do, in order to be a "success" in science: post docs, research ... however, it wasn't until I was a post doc that I began to ask myself this important question. There are lots of different paths to success in science and engineering -- all of them equally valid. It just depends on the kind of person that you are and what you want -- and the answer to that question changes throughout your life!
Last Updated: 3 January 2013
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