Where are you from?
Due to my father's service with the United Methodist Church, my family moved around a lot when I was a child. We lived in various locations in eastern Tennessee, but my high school was in the Kingsport, Tenn., area. Now I live with my own family in Decatur, Ga.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
In particular, I remember a night hike at summer camp when I was about 10 years old, where we went to the top of a mountain ridge. The sky was just splendid, with thousands of stars and a breathtaking Milky Way, and I felt a particular thrill.
Throughout my childhood, I enjoyed several family trips -- and school field trips -- to the Bay Mountain Park and Planetarium. Aside from the visual enjoyment of the night sky, I also enjoyed viewing space exhibits. When we went to the Smithsonian, I got to touch the Moon rock -- that was amazing to me. Plus walking through the SkyLab and seeing the (rather small!) size of the Apollo capsule was another important experience.
However, probably the most captivating space experience for me from when I was young was the very first launch of the Space Shuttle in 1980. I got up extra early several times that week (as the launch went through a couple of delays) to try to see the launch live. The Space Shuttle launch was even more thrilling than other rocket launches because I knew that it would glide back to Earth to be flown again!
Embrace your inner nerd and seek out others who speak your language and love the things you love.
How did you end up working in the space program?
My first project related to the space program was a summer research experience at Cornell University and the Arecibo Observatory when I was an undergraduate student. That summer I looked at radar images of craters on Venus, in preparation for the Magellan spacecraft's encounter with this planet in 1990.
In graduate school I worked on comets and asteroids. Much of what we've learned about these small objects is based on the images and close-up photography from spacecraft such as Giotto, Galileo, NEAR, Deep Space 1, Deep Impact, Rosetta, Hayabusa, and now Dawn.
As an observer who uses ground-based telescopes, I have several times been in a position of making support observations to help in mission planning; helping to maximize the scientific return of the mission when it arrives at its destination.
What is a Professor of Astronomy?
The daily job of a college professor is never dull. There are the things you would expect a professor to do, for example, teaching classes and guiding students in research. However, there are many other parts of my job description: On campus, I advise students (all levels) in selecting their courses or applying for jobs and fellowships. I select and maintain equipment for teaching laboratories, and serve on committees that take care of the daily business of the college. I also have the opportunity to aid the profession of astronomy by serving as a peer reviewer for funding proposals, NASA missions, telescope time requests, and articles submitted for publication. I have also been a member of review committees and I have been involved in professional political advocacy and education.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
I can't think of one individual moment in my career that is my favorite; however, I do have a category of favorite moments. Astronomers have the privilege of travel, and often to very interesting and remote locations. My favorite moments have been when I'm traveling the world to various observatories on the tops of mountains, to conferences and to meetings in international cities -- I so enjoy what I have learned in these places.
Who inspired you?
I was inspired by my college professors and summer research mentors, my graduate school professors, postdoctoral mentors, and now by my colleagues the world over. Many times in my education and career path I have been surprised, but pleased, when a senior person in the field (or sometimes a peer) would take a personal interest in my success.
My undergraduate professors, Alberto Sadun and Arthur Bowling at Agnes Scott College were incredibly devoted to the education of their students. At Maria Mitchell Observatory, my mentor Emilia Belserene patiently guided me in my first summer of research and helped me see how much I loved astronomical observations. Don Campbell at Cornell helped me develop interests in radar astronomy (with the help of Alice Hine at Arecibo Observatory), Unix operating systems, advanced computer programming, and dynamics of comets.
In graduate school, I enjoyed a lot of opportunities to observe with the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory (FCRAO), and am indebted to my graduate advisor Peter Schloerb for opportunities, patience and a lot of scientific inspiration. In my postdoctoral position at Amherst College (and the Five College Astronomy Department), I was inspired by George Greenstein and by Darby Dyar for their innovativeness and highly-engaged teaching style.
I've had many other inspirations: in Carl Sagan for his passion for communicating a love of science with everyone; in Sally Ride for focusing on the inspiration of young girls interested in science and space; and in numerous dedicated and devoted colleagues who are able to fit in more than is possible in a "regular" work week in order to push the frontiers of science and to inspire the next generation of scientists.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Go for it, but be flexible to see what else comes along the path. There are lots of ways to be a scientist, lots of areas of study and lots of types of professors—having an open mind about what constitutes a successful career path is really important.
Also, don't be afraid to let other areas of your life influence your career decisions: Where can you and your partner both have good jobs? What situation will be best if you want to have kids? Do you want to have more time to be with your family? What kind of environment do you prefer to work in? What kind of job will make you feel like you've done something meaningful? Ask questions along the way -- you'll know a situation is a good place to work or study if people are happy to answer your questions and don't judge you by them.
What do you do for fun?
I already mentioned travel, which I dearly love, but just about any nature experience or adventure. I've learned to fly airplanes, to SCUBA dive, to speak Spanish, I've been mountain-climbing, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, parasailing, skydiving, horseback riding, snorkeling, dogsledding, skiing, zip-lining, tubing, skating, bicycling, and I'm always looking for new adventures. I also enjoy music, going for walks, watching movies, and playing games.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
First, take as much math as you can, and never be afraid to ask for help in mastering new concepts.
Second, make yourself part of an amiable group of like-minded friends: embrace your inner nerd and seek out others who speak your language and love the things you love. When you are with friends and feel supported, you can meet larger challenges.
Thirdly, learn to share what you love in plain language, and describe it for people who ask: People really are interested in technical subjects and are always happy to meet someone who can explain things in an understandable way in order to help increase their interest.