Where are you from?
I was born in Munich, Germany, but I moved to the U.S. with my parents when I was five years old. I grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., where my father was a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
Apollo 11's landing on the Moon. It happened shortly after my eighth birthday and we were in the middle of a road trip through the southwest United States.
Road trips in my family were long and rather strenuous affairs. Often we were out of the hotel by six a.m., and we spent long days driving from one park or attraction to the next (with the four of us kids fighting in the back over who would get the window seats and who had to sit in the middle and share a seat belt).
However, on the day of the first lunar landing we spent the entire day at the hotel, watching as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon. I have to confess that at the time, my eight-year-old self was more impressed with the fact that something could keep my parents glued to a TV set in a hotel room, than I was with the actual lunar landing itself. Over the years, I grew to appreciate the significance of that event.
How did you end up working in the space program?
In terms of my career, I actually came into space science rather late.
I was not particularly interested in science when I was growing up and for a long time I thought I wanted to be a librarian. By the time I got to college, that idea had fallen by the wayside, but I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I was attending Purdue University and majoring in German language and literature, mostly because my family is originally from Germany. However, I was also taking various other classes to try to find something I wanted to make into a career. An accounting class quickly convinced me that business was not it! It took me almost the full four years, but I finally found it when I took an introductory geology class (in order to fulfill a basic science requirement). I was hooked from the start, thanks in large part to a wonderful teaching assistant for the class who had an incredible enthusiasm for all rocks and minerals. Since very few of the classes I was taking as a language major could be applied to a science degree, I actually finished my Bachelor of Arts in German and then essentially started over again in the area of geosciences.
Part of the way through this process I transferred to Indiana University, a move that turned out to have a big impact on my future. I had not been there long before Abhijit Basu, a professor I knew only slightly, stopped me in the halls one day and said, "If you ever think you might be interested in working on some of the Moon rocks, come and see me." It was a casual invitation that he probably made to many students, but it completely changed the course of my scientific career. Like so many others of my generation, I vividly remembered the Apollo landings and was fascinated by the thought that man had walked on the Moon. Somehow it had never occurred to me before that all those rocks collected by the astronauts were available for research, or that one could make a career out of studying extraterrestrial materials. I ended up doing a senior thesis with Basu on the Apollo 16 regolith samples and decided that I wanted to pursue space sciences in graduate school.
By this time I was married and had just given birth to my second child, so I was looking for a school with some flexibility that could accommodate a student who also had a family to raise. Washington University (WUSTL) was recommended by Dave and Marilyn Lindstrom and, indeed, my visit to the campus and especially to the "4th floor" -- which at the time seemed to have more canine than human inhabitants -- confirmed for me that this was the place for me. To her credit, my future advisor, Dr. Ghislaine Crozaz, never expressed the slightest doubt that I could handle the demands of family and graduate school.
What is a Research Professor in Cosmochemistry?
I am a research professor of cosmochemistry at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL).
The freedom to pursue my own research interests is one of the great aspects about working in academia. Since I don't have any teaching duties, I have a lot of freedom to choose what I work on and how I spend my days. Over the years much of my work has involved the study of achondrites and chondrites, how they originated and what they can tell us about the origin of the solar system. More recently, my research has focused on the study of presolar grains and what we can learn from them about the formation and evolution of the stars and our galaxy.
One of the best aspects of working at WUSTL is the interdisciplinary nature of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences. The "Mac Center" consists of scientists from both the physics department and the department of Earth and planetary sciences, as well as colleagues from chemistry and engineering. The opportunity to interact closely with members from different departments is important in the space sciences, where the problems that we address typically span traditional scientific disciplines. For example, my current work on presolar silicate grains involves as much mineralogy (using compositional and structural information to understand the grain formation in circumstellar outflows) as it does astrophysics (using isotopic data to constrain stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis).
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career?
One of my favorite career moments came after my husband (who was also a work colleague) and I had spent an inordinate amount of time trying to measure the iron isotopic composition of a particular grain, which we had identified as presolar (based on earlier oxygen isotopic measurements).
Iron isotopic measurements of presolar grains are difficult for a number of reasons, not least of which is simply trying to locate the grain you are trying to measure due to the poor quality of the imaging system on the instrument. After an entire week of simply trying to find that one grain, we finally decided to simply measure every grain in the vicinity. Over the weekend, we worked on processing the data: my husband took our daughter to her Saturday morning swim practice and, while there, compared the coordinates of our measurements with the ones from the oxygen isotopic measurements. At the same time, I stayed at home and analyzed the isotopic data. One grain clearly had a significantly different isotopic composition from all the others. When my husband came home, we compared our data sets and found that the grain I had identified as isotopically anomalous was, in fact, the same one that he had targeted as the presolar grain.
Other work colleagues whom I have told this story to have been less impressed, ("well, yes sure") but to me it was a beautiful validation of the scientific process after a very frustrating week, made more meaningful by the familial context in which it was obtained.
Who inspired you?
My advisor, Professor Ghislaine Crozaz, has been an inspiration not only in terms of setting a high standard for research, but also for her compassion and caring towards others. She has been a friend throughout my career and has always been someone I can turn to for advice, both personal and professional. As a woman pursuing a career in a male-dominated field, she has also been an excellent role model for me.
Another source of inspiration has been Professor Tom Bernatowicz, the current head of our "4th floor" group. I have always admired his scientific rigor and his whole-hearted pursuit of scientific knowledge for its own sake. I am also inspired by his dedication to the students he teaches.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
It's a cliché, but I can only say: find something that you love to do. And don't be afraid to follow a non-traditional path; there are many definitions of success and in the end it doesn't matter if your route is more convoluted than the norm or if it takes you longer to get there.
What do you do for fun?
I like to travel. I enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities such as biking, camping, etc. I'm a big reader (as you would expect from someone who once wanted to be a librarian), on topics ranging from history to biography to science fiction and literature. There are so many fascinating things to learn about the world that I can't imagine ever getting bored, even if I were to quit science and completely devote myself to other topics.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Explore your opportunities. Try to get involved in research as an undergraduate student. This will give you an understanding of whether research, and the academic life, are right for you. There is a lot of freedom in academia, but also a lot of personal responsibility. What you accomplish is largely determined by the amount of effort you are willing to put into it; that's true of most fields of course, not just the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas.
This profile has been adapted in part from an original interview conducted by Susan Niebur, for the "Women in Planetary Science" website. To read the full original interview, click here.