Where are you from?
I live in Austin, Texas. I was born in New York City and I was raised just outside the city on Long Island. I went to school at Cornell University and headed for Texas for graduate school. I never left.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
My father was a navigator on B-24s during World War II, so he liked to point out the constellations to me. You couldn't see many around New York City though, but he tried.
How did you end up working in the space program?
When I was an undergraduate physics major at Cornell University in the 1970s, I had an advisor who suggested that his students take one class in every science discipline. I knew nothing of astronomy and so I fit astronomy into my schedule first and fell in love.
During my junior year, I started to work for Joe Veverka. He was also involved in lots of space missions. When I went off to grad school, he stayed interested and suggested directions for me to pursue as a grad student. When the comet rendezvous/asteroid flyby mission came around, Joe Veverka was the one who encouraged me to apply to be on the imaging team.
Perseverance and hard work are more important than smarts. If you really want to be an astronomer, you can overcome lots of obstacles.
Who inspired you?
Joe Veverka. He was very encouraging for my career.
What is an Assistant Director of the McDonald Observatory and a Senior Research Scientist?
I am the assistant director of the McDonald Observatory and a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. McDonald Observatory is an arm of the University of Texas at Austin and is located in the Davis Mountains of west Texas. It is absolutely beautiful and very remote and dark. As assistant director, I am responsible for overseeing the telescope scheduling, which includes running the Telescope Allocation Committee. I also help in the planning for projects and budgets. Additionally, I am the head of our computing group, though generally more as a supervisor than as a worker (I do help out with users when needed).
As senior research scientist, I study the chemistry of comets for what they can tell us about the origins of our solar system.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
My favorite moment is when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted Jupiter. We observed it with all the telescopes at McDonald Observatory. It was quite exciting watching Jupiter changing before our very eyes and being tied in with all of the other observers at other observatories. Each night, after Jupiter set, we would work for a few more hours to get things ready for the morning news conferences at Goddard. It was exciting, and it was fun.
Similarly, I was at the Keck Observatory during the impact of the Deep Impact spacecraft with comet Tempel 1. We had to plan observations when we did not know what to expect. We obtained an extraordinary data set and again, being part of the world-wide team was exciting. Having a front row seat at Keck was also wonderful.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
The first piece of advice is that if you are not passionate about science and the scientific process, find another career. The second piece of advice is, learn to like (or at least not dislike) writing -- it is what we do for a living. Third, don't pick a sub-field because it is popular today. It might not be popular tomorrow, or you might not be able to stick it out. Fourth, you can always change your mind. It is harder to change directions when you are on soft money, but even then you can do it. Fifth, have a life outside the field too. It makes what you do for a living a little more balanced. Also, one of the perks of our field is that you get to travel -- sometimes to neat places -- take advantage of this.
What do you do for fun?
I bicycle, do advanced and challenge square dancing, and drink and collect wine.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Perseverance and hard work are more important than smarts. If you really want to be an astronomer, you can overcome lots of obstacles. (Just don't tell the public we are being paid for our hobby!)
This profile has been adapted from an original interview conducted by Susan Niebur for the Woman in Planetary Science website. To read the full interview click here.