Dr. Britney Schmidt of Georgia Tech discusses the search for life in our solar system and beyond at a 2015 conference. Credit: NASA Astrobiology

Where are you from?

Originally I'm from the northwest side of Tucson, Ariz., though most of my family is from New Jersey. I have a great, supportive family on both sides, but my mom, brother and grandfather still live in Tucson, so I call that home.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

My dad was in the Army, and he was trained to use the stars to sort out his position at night. He loved to teach me about that, so we'd go out at night and figure out where north was by identifying the constellations. Being from Tucson, the night skies are just incredible, especially out where I grew up, which was amazingly dark and full of stars.

I particularly remember the day that I figured out that the dense band of stars and dust was the Milky Way! I was probably 5 years old, and I still think about that moment every time I see it! The next big "ah-hah!" moment was the first time I watched the Galilean moons orbit around Jupiter. Awesome!

The most important thing that I have learned is to work on what you love so that all the time you spend on it has value.
- Britney Schmidt

How did you end up working in the space program?

I was pursuing an English major during my undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona (UA), but I didn't feel challenged by what I was learning, and so during that period I tried out all types of topics that interested me: sociology, political science, planetary science, theater. (I had originally thought I wanted to work for Spin magazine writing about rock bands.) Then I had a class with Bob Brown from the Lunar and Planetary Lab at UA. I was fascinated and started becoming more involved in the field of planetary science by working as a preceptor (similar to a student teacher's assistant for the class). This led to being invited to help develop a planetary ices laboratory with Dr. Brown, who convinced me I could do well as a scientist and prompted me to consider pursuing a career in planetary science. At the time I was studying possible D/H fractionation of comets. I used to work all the time, including weekends. It was a labor of love.

Then I transferred to majoring in physics and I became interested in early solar system processes. I started working in another laboratory at UA, working with Dante Lauretta on the interaction of nebular gases and metals in the nebular phase prior to accretion.

As an undergraduate, I was also involved in a research project studying Europa's lithosphere with Terry Hurford, which led to my first publication. This had aroused my interested in ice geophysics. I wanted to pursue my graduate studies on that topic, but this was when the Galileo mission came to an end, and the funding got scarce. It was a difficult time to get started on studying Europa.

Largely because of my diverse skill set from observing and using remote sensing, as well as exposure to meteorites and nebular chemistry, I ended up being offered a graduate student research (GSR) position by Christopher Russell at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Professor Russell wanted someone who had experience with observations and who was knowledgeable in geophysics, especially of relevance to asteroids, to work for the Dawn mission. By happy chance, this was exactly my profile!

During my grad studies, I tried to stay close to the Europa community: I volunteered to serve on the Europa Jupiter System Mission's Science Definition Team by taking notes during their meetings. At the end of my thesis, I had a lot of contacts with that community, and especially with Don Blankenship, for whom I now work. I was lucky to have had an advisor in grad school who gave me flexibility and let me expand my thesis in several directions so that I could develop a broad-based skill set, and get more experience with geophysical studies on top of being involved in asteroid observations.

Who inspired you?

I have been inspired by a lot of people in a lot of places, most of whom were teachers. I've tried to incorporate pieces of all of these people in my approach to life and to science.

My high school (Flowing Wells) was a great source of inspiration with an incredible group of teachers and administrators who are committed to inspiring students to learn.

Both my mom and my sophomore honors English teacher and yearbook advisor Jim Brunenkant are the reasons I'm committed to educating and helping people.

Bob Brown, my first advisor, had an incredible influence by taking interest in and supporting me during a tumultuous time in my life. I probably wouldn't be who or where I am without him handing me the reins, so to speak.

I interned at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with Bonnie Buratti using telescopes to observe seasonal changes on Triton. My interactions with her showed me that it really was possible to succeed as a woman in a non-traditional field. Bonnie played a huge part in my career choices by showing that one can lead a very active professional life, have a family, be a great scientist and encourage other people.

My current advisor Don Blankenship is another inspiration. He is a great manager who runs an incredibly successful group that is trying to solve big problems (climate change and life in the solar system) and stays focused on the science no matter what happens. It's amazing what a small group of people can accomplish together.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

Currently my main focus is the formation of chaos terrain on Europa. This involves comparisons with Earth's cryosphere. When I first started to study terrestrial glaciology I went with my team to Antarctica for our field season. We use a plethora of techniques to study the geophysical evolution of the ice and the sub-glacial geology of Antarctica. My role has been to study Europa analogs, and will probably involve in the future studying fracture and water in terrestrial ices. I am hoping to go down to Antarctica again next year.

I am also interested in icy asteroid evolution and astrobiology, as well as the early history of Vesta. I've recently been appointed as the science team liaison on the education and public outreach team for the Dawn mission to Vesta.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

I have two favorite moments. The first moment was in 2007 when I received our Pallas data from the Hubble Space Telescope: I was at the Space Telescope Institute working with Max Mutchler, and he downloaded the beautiful images, about eight pixels across, of egg-shaped Pallas. I am sure I cried!

From July 2010 (when I arrived in Austin) up till December 2010 I spent time thinking about a particular problem on Europa and what the Earth's cryosphere might be able to tell us about how ice and water interact on Europa. At the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in March 2011, I was excited about my new results, but I hadn't yet shared them with anyone. Over a little table in a restaurant I handed the figure over to Don Blankenship, and his reaction was incredible. It was the great "Eureka!" moment. We spent probably another hour discussing the possible implications. I live for those moments in this field -- the feeling that you've just solved something is overwhelming, and I couldn't keep a smile off my face.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

The most important thing that I have learned is to work on what you love so that all the time you spend on it has value. Writing proposals and papers, getting proposals rejected, spending all those hours working to understand a problem you're trying to solve, and trying to get established in a new field can be daunting, but if you love what you do it doesn't feel like work!

Be flexible with your path to achieving your goals. For a while, you may have to be a slightly different version of yourself than you imagined, but it's all definitely worth it in the end. I first started thinking about Europa missions almost 10 years ago -- I was 20 when I figured out this is what I wanted to do for my career. I am so excited about Europa -- it was worth taking a more circuitous path to get to the point where I can make a career working on it. Also, my thesis project wasn't what I envisioned when I was applying for graduate school, but it allowed me to develop a skill set and a network that helped me to get where I am now, doing exactly what I always wanted to do. And along the way, I gained exposure I never would have had otherwise.

Another recommendation I would make is that it is important to develop good relationships with other people in the planetary science community. There are a lot of great people in planetary science! You will learn an incredible amount from these people, and eventually they will remember you for things like invited talks and getting involved in missions. Ways to be involved include, for example, participating in writing white papers, attending focus groups and other service to the community. It's also vital to get out and meet people at meetings, read the literature and ask a lot of questions. Then good people will want to work with you.

What do you do for fun?

I am a huge heavy metal fan, so I try to go to as many concerts as I can, and I constantly have music on in the background. I am a sports addict as well, especially baseball. I watch too much ESPN and not nearly enough Yankees games. I also ride Arabian horses, and I just started showing again after a few years off (it's hard to afford horse shows on a graduate student's budget). I'm a snowboarder, and I am in love with my car, a 1977 Datsun 280 Z.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

I'm still really young and just starting out myself. I think an important problem many young scientists face is the impostor syndrome: starting off in a new field is intimidating. I try to remember to have confidence in myself and my abilities (but not too much). I find you have to think for yourself, not let other people choose directions for you. There are many parameters that can influence your choices: colleagues, other political and social forces, personal life, etc. Know what you like and what you want to do, and figure out how to do it. Be humble -- it's important to be able to identify your own weaknesses and be open to new perspectives on your ideas, but don't be afraid to be bold. Take some risks and make contacts with the right people. Have a goal and think for yourself, and you should come out OK.

This profile has in part been adapted from a post about Britney Schmidt by Susan Niebur for the Women in Planetary Science website.