Where are you from?
I was born outside of Chicago, and spent most of my childhood there with a few years spent in Germany during grade school. After graduate school in Rhode Island, I moved to Maryland to work at the Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I was fascinated with space and the planets at a very young age, so it's hard to pinpoint in my memories exactly which one came first. However, there are a few memories that do stand out.
Probably the earliest specific memory (and easiest one to put a date on) occurred in February 1979 when I was four years old. It was an eclipse. I was really excited about it, and I remember putting together some kind of a presentation about the planets (the presentation involved a poster with even a diagram) for my aunt and parents either before the eclipse took place or as a result of it.
Life is full of ups and downs, but fortunately for me, my parents instilled in me a strong belief that if I worked hard enough I could achieve whatever I really wanted to do in life.
Other memories include painting the glass on flashlights red with nail polish, so that the light wouldn't ruin our night vision for observing the stars. I also remember visiting a telescope with my dad. I have many, many fond memories of staring at the stars with my dad while camping -- especially during meteor showers.
How did you end up working in the space program?
As an undergraduate I had been interested in pursuing both astrophysics and geology, but the University of Chicago didn't offer an undergraduate astrophysics program.
When I started graduate school, I was originally hoping to get a master's degree to help me find a job which involved more "real" geology. The professor who would later become my advisor was working on a Mars project, funded by NASA, and thanks to him I was able to become involved in the field of planetary geology. This combined my love of rocks and outer space together.
After finishing my master's, I joined the Ph.D. program at Brown University, where I worked on the Dawn mission and the Moon Mineralogy Mapper for the Chandrayaan-1 mission. This is also where I began learning about the technique of reflectance spectroscopy. I loved (and still love) my research, so I was sure that I wanted to do whatever I could to stay in a job where I could keep involved with new missions and planetary research.
Who inspired you?
My Ph.D. advisor Carle Pieters was a huge inspiration, but I have been blessed with many great mentors and role models for various aspects of science and life as a scientist in general.
Life is full of ups and downs, but fortunately for me, my parents instilled in me a strong belief that if I worked hard enough I could achieve whatever I really wanted to do in life. When I was closer to a "down," I also had teachers or others in my life who said things like, "I know you can do this" and that meant a lot to me. Actually, one of those people was my high school honors physics teacher, Mr. Tilley, who just passed away recently. If anyone reading this is an educator or in a similar position, those simple words can have a huge effect on a young person, especially if they don't hear them often.
What is a Planetary Geologist?
Planetary geologists study how solid bodies in the solar system formed and evolved over time. This is accomplished through a variety of different types of research, which in general integrate information that we gather from examining meteorites and lunar samples with data gathered telescopically or from orbit around other planets and asteroids. There are also a number of planetary geologists who do field work in extreme environments on Earth as analogues for Marsand the Moon.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
That's difficult! I really love my job, so it's difficult to pick a favorite. I guess the moment that jumps out at me most right now, was probably in May 2011. I was really excited about the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, which had just gone into orbit that March. Since I work at JHUAPL there were all kinds of exciting things going on with MESSENGER, but I was not directly involved in them.
Anyway, I had heard that there might be some work that needed to be done for another instrument (CRISM on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)), and I went to talk to Scott Murchie (the principle investigator of CRISM) about it. He asked me if I might be interested in another project, and we went to talk to some other people about it. A few minutes later, I was recruited to help out with calibration activities for an instrument on MESSENGER. I was so excited to be invited to join the project that I almost danced down the hallway celebrating. The next day I realized what a challenge some of the issues would be -- and it has been a lot of work -- but it's been a fantastic way to push myself and to learn new things. Mercury also turns out to be a really fascinating planet with many surprises.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
This is intellectually a very rewarding career, but there are aspects of the path through graduate school and beyond that can be both challenging and frustrating. I think that if you want to be involved with self-directed research, you have to really be able to express your thoughts in writing. You don't have to like it, but writing proposals and papers is something that is pretty unavoidable. I think it really helps to put yourself into your reader's shoes and think, "What do they need to know to understand why this project (or my results, etc.) are so exciting?" It's also very important to seek out mentors and role models that embody what you think is important in life. When things get tough, it really helps to have someone to look to (and ideally to talk to) to remind yourself that it can be OK.
I'd also highly recommend that you sometimes take a step back and realize how cool your research is: It's easy to become so entrenched in a project, especially in graduate school, that you lose perspective and enthusiasm.
I could go on for way too long on this question, but I'll just add one more thing: Don't be afraid to push yourself and learn new skills, yet don't be afraid to ask for help and collaborate.
What do you do for fun?
I love to play with my son (who is almost 3), and we like to get away on weekends and explore our area or go apple or berry picking (if they're in season). I love camping, swimming and bike riding, so as my son gets a little older we'll probably do a lot more of those things.
I'm trying to develop some practical non-job related skills, like cooking, gardening, canning, and sewing, because I'd like to have a hobby that produces something useful. Cleaning or working on the house on the weekends can be really relaxing, especially because it has a tangible result. In research science, sometimes it takes years and years to get the results you're looking for, so it's a nice break to spend a weekend and be rewarded with a freshly painted room, or a few jars of fresh tomato sauce to store for the winter.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Stick with it! Find joy in what you do, whether it's in mastering new things, solving complicated problems, exploring the Universe, or anything else.