Where are you from?
I've lived in a number of different places, but I consider Seattle to be my hometown.
It is almost surreal—not only are you picking what to take pictures of on Mars, you're also typically the first person on Earth to see those pictures when they come back from Mars.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I've been interested in space science for almost as long as I can remember. I grew up watching the various "Star Trek" series ("Next Gen" started when I was two-years old), and the idea of studying stars and planets grew from there. Every clear night I would be outside staring at the sky -- often without a jacket, much to the annoyance of my parents. As I got older though, I can remember two specific things that bolstered that interest even more.
The first was the Mars Pathfinder mission. Seeing photos of the Sojourner rover on the surface of Mars was just so fascinating to me. The second was NASA's "Mars Millennium Project." (I saw a commercial for this project while watching "Star Trek: Voyager" on TV.) For this project, kids were asked to design a colony on Mars in the year 2030. I completely immersed myself in that project, learning everything I could about Mars, and I knew for certain at that point that I wanted a career in planetary science.
How did you end up working in the space program?
I've always known that the professor path was not for me, since I love the hands-on technical side of things. When I finished my master's degree I had an internal struggle of whether continuing on as a Ph.D. or going into the working world.
Malin Space Science System (MSSS), who has built cameras for a number of NASA missions, just so happened to be hiring right at the time I was graduating from Wesleyan University. This seemed to be a good fit since MSSS is unique, in that they both build and operate cameras for NASA missions and also do science.
However, after a few years there I realized that in order to best pursue my career goals I should indeed get a Ph.D. (I would like to be the principal investigator of an instrument or mission.) I made the difficult decision to leave MSSS in order to go back to school. I am now a Ph.D. student in geology and planetary science at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
What is an Assistant Staff Scientist at MSSS?
At MSSS, my primary duty was to target the Context Camera (CTX) aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This meant that I got to pick what the camera took pictures of in a given week, and then analyze those pictures from the standpoint of a geologist. It was a fantastic opportunity: There aren't many people in the world who get paid to take pictures of Mars every day! I was also involved in operations for the Mastcam, Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
Seeing the first images I targeted for CTX. It was almost surreal -- not only are you picking what to take pictures of on Mars, you're also typically the first person on Earth to see those pictures when they come back from Mars.
Who inspired you?
Stephen Hawking has always been an inspiration to me as I also suffer from a physical disability. As a child interested in science, I always thought of how much he has been able to do and accomplish despite his ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). His accomplishments motivate me to keep trying.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
If you're interested in getting involved in the space program, there are a wide variety of options available to you. I've heard some students tell me they love space, but aren't very good at math and/or science and so they've written off any dreams of working with NASA. To these kids I like to point out space-related career options that would not normally come to mind (i.e., computer science/programming, medical science, food science) and some that are not science-based at all (i.e., artists, pilots, technical writers, administrative positions, educational and public outreach jobs, etc.).
What do you do for fun?
I love photography (which I also do as a business outside of my planetary science work) and traveling, the two of which go hand in hand. I guess being a scientist interested in space it's in my nature to explore.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Don't be afraid to get in contact with professors, students or even working professionals in the field that you're interested in. It's never too early to make those connections that might come in handy later on as far as applying to graduate school, applying for jobs or looking for people to collaborate with on research projects. Being proactive also shows initiative and helps you to stand out from the crowd.
If you're an undergrad, don't just select the places you apply to graduate school based on their name or prestige. Think about what specific area of planetary science interests you, and then look for papers on that topic to see who's working on it. Check the websites of those people and get in touch with them ahead of time if you think you'd be interested in working with them. Since you're going to dedicate a few years to working with that person, it's good to get a feel for them ahead of time to see if they are indeed someone you'd want to work with. Plus, it's helpful if they already know who you are when your application comes across their desk. Every master's and Ph.D. program I was accepted into were at universities where I had been in touch with the professors I wanted to work with for quite some time before actually applying.