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Rhonda Stroud
Picture of Rhonda Stroud
Rhonda Stroud
Research Physicist, Nanoscale Materials Section at the Naval Research Laboratory
Rhonda kayaking on the Potomac River: "In the last couple of years, we've taken up kayaking. It's great exercise and it's something we can all enjoy together that gets us out into nature, and is not too expensive."

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

Where are you from?
I grew up in in Rochester, N.Y. I've also lived in Pasadena, Calif., Ithaca, N.Y and St. Louis, Mo. However, since 1996 my home has been Washington, DC. DC is my favorite -- there are so many amazing cultural and scientific resources here.

"I am inspired by my own daughter to work
towards seeing that all kids have the tools
to go out and solve the mysteries of the world."
Rhonda Stroud

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
One of my first school memories is listening to my kindergarten teacher explain how we get heat and light from the sun. He told us that the sun was like a giant bomb in the sky, and he drew a cartoon sun-bomb giving light to kids on Earth. He always let one kid take home the drawing from the lesson each day and I felt so lucky that it was my day. I can still picture the drawing.

How did you end up working in the space program?
I've been interested in math and science since at least kindergarten, but I didn't get directly involved in space-science research until well after graduate school. As a teenager, I wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic, or an astronaut or physicist.

Heading to college, my thought was to study condensed-matter physics, and maybe eventually become an astronaut. Somewhere I had read (maybe it was in a quote from Sally Ride) that at that time the odds of becoming an astronaut were higher for mission specialists who first obtained graduate training in physical science or engineering, so this was my plan.

As a graduate student in physics at Washington University in St. Louis, I got to spend a couple of weeks working at two different national labs: Oak Ridge and Ames Lab in Iowa. It seemed to me that the scientists at these labs had the best jobs. At academic jobs, the professors are busy with grant proposals, teaching and committee work, and they rarely get to do much hands-on research themselves. In contrast, the scientists at the national labs get to keep doing bench-level science for most of their career, if they so choose. Since I really enjoy working in the lab, this seemed like a good choice for me.

After getting my Ph.D., I took a postdoc at the Naval Research Lab (NRL) in Washington, DC. After two years I was converted to staff, and I've been at NRL ever since. At a national lab there is more freedom to pursue basic research than in industry, but a greater need to be relevant to the agency mission than at a university. The strength of national labs compared to universities is often the collaborative nature of the work. There are nearly 1,000 Ph.D. scientists at NRL, so chances are if you need experts in any given field to talk to, you can find them on site. It's a great place to work if you enjoy being part of "big science" that just can't be done by a lone research group at a university.

What is a Research Physicist?
I am a research physicist, and I get to learn new things every day about the cosmic recycling process that forms new stars out of the ashes of old ones through electron microscopy of dust particles from stars and comets. This allows me to combine all three of my original interests. I'm not working for National Geographic, but I collect digital images and I travel to conferences all over the world. I'm not an astronaut, but I get to glimpse inside supernovae by analyzing nanoparticles that formed there.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
There are really two moments that stand out in my memory. The first was in my last year of graduate school when I was visiting Oak Ridge National Lab. I went there to use a special x-ray diffraction instrument that allowed me to put my Ti-Zr-Ni samples in an air-free container, heat them and measure their crystal structure. I had been trying for several years to understand how this material changed between a quasicrystal, a crystal and a glass. The experiments had been failing due to the samples oxidizing. One day, I tried the experiment with a slightly different sample, one that we deliberately loaded with hydrogen. The little bit of hydrogen came out as we heated the sample; this kept it from oxidizing. Only then was I able to see that the sample transformed back and forth from quasicrystal to crystal, and that meant I had found the first stable Ti-based quasicrystal. All of those previous failed experiments made finding the true answer so much more exhilarating.

The second really memorable moment was putting the first slice of a tiny (about as big across as 1/50 of a human hair) pre-solar aluminum oxide grain into the transmission electron microscope. This grain formed in a star older than our sun, more than 4.6 billion years ago and I was the first person to look at it with such a powerful microscope. I just had this sense that I was looking at something no one else has ever seen, and that this something was once part of a star that died out long before there was even an Earth to stand on. It somehow made me feel part of the cosmos and a little bit immortal.

Who inspired you?
I take inspiration from lots of places, but it must have started with my parents and my early teachers. In college, I had a class on the history of women in science from Margaret Rossiter that really opened my eyes to the accomplishments and struggles of women scientists and mathematicians of the last two millennia.

I gained a lot from seeing some high-powered women scientists in action here in Washington: Vera Rubin, Marilyn Fogel and Maxine Singer from the Carnegie Institution, and Elaine Oran, Judith Lean, Fran Ligler, Debra Rolison, and Zakya Kafafi from the Naval Research Lab, to name a few.

My husband, who is my best friend and best collaborator, inspires me daily with his own discoveries and his interest in mine. And not least, I am inspired by my own daughter to work towards seeing that all kids have the tools to go out and solve the mysteries of the world.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
It is your own passion for the work that will carry you through the inevitable rejected proposal, hostile referee report, the serious illness and every other obstacle. Invest in that passion.

My biggest advice for women just starting out in planetary science is to be visible and involved. There are so many ways to do this too: There are really great research programs for undergraduates these days. Volunteer to run the campus student telescope or join the astronomy club. There's no better way to find out if you are really passionate about planetary science than to do it yourself. The skills you learn and the connections you make will be invaluable later on.

For graduate students and postdocs: I think it is even more important to go beyond the required coursework, and find out what projects the groups around you are working on. Sure, you need to work hard on your own project, but you can gain really valuable new insights and skills by learning about other people's work. That's exactly how I got started in planetary science. I learned about pre-solar grains and meteorites from talking to my husband and colleagues at the Smithsonian and the Carnegie Institution, and I realized that I had the right microscopy skills to address some of the questions they had about these objects.

It's really hard to guess what opportunities will be out there when you finish graduate school or a postdoc, so I would say just gather as many skills as you can, and keep your eyes and ears open for a problem that you are uniquely suited to solve. If you get a chance to review proposals and/or serve on a review panel, jump at it: This is the fastest way to learn how to write compelling proposals.

Finally, I would say just hang in there. The most important thing for a successful research career is not your grades, or your score on the qualifying exam, or even how powerful your advisor is -- it's your ability to keep at it until you get results. Hang in there, and you just might surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.

What do you do for fun?
Before our daughter came along, my husband and I went out to dinner four nights a week, went to see a lot of live music and art galleries, and we planned our vacations around how much scuba diving we could do. Now we do a lot more children's activities, and a lot less eating out and scuba diving. In the last couple of years, we've taken up kayaking. It's great exercise and it's something we can all enjoy together that gets us out into nature, and is not too expensive.

Photography is still my biggest personal hobby. I once told my thesis advisor that after twenty years of physics, maybe it would be time for me start a second career as a photographer. Now that it's been about twenty years since I said that, I still think maybe in twenty years, I'll become a photographer. For now, I'm really happy spending my day analyzing tiny grains from stars, and then taking my daughter to dance class.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Math, science and engineering are for everybody, as much as music -- or food -- is for everybody. Just as we all eat, and we all appreciate some kind of music, we can all make science or math or engineering part of our everyday lives. Only a few people grow up to be famous chefs or rock stars, but that doesn't stop regular people from enjoying a good meal or singing along to the radio. Whether you want to have a career in research, or just learn why one part of the physical world is the way it is, don't let anything stop you. There are ways to get involved at every level -- from elementary school on up. Join a citizen scientist project. Check out a science museum website. Keep asking questions and looking for answers.

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Last Updated: 3 January 2013

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