What first sparked your interest in space and science?
I never really thought much about space science until I took an Earth-science course during my junior year of high school. One of the units we covered was astronomy. (I remember learning about the H-R diagram and the lifecycles of stars.) My teacher was great and always very enthusiastic about what he taught us: deaths of very massive stars; the creation of gigantic black holes and how they consume everything in their paths. After that lecture, I was pretty much hooked on space.
"Be bold. Search out people who work in your area of interest. I gained a lot of opportunities by just emailing folks that I thought did cool research and inquiring if I could be their summer intern."
How did you end up working in the space program?
Although my Earth-science class in high school influenced my interest in astrophysics, it was my high school physics teacher who suggested that it would be best for me to obtain a bachelor's degree in physics and then go on to graduate school for a Ph.D. in astronomy or astrophysics.
After high school, I attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T) with a major in physics. While there, I was encouraged to apply to the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program during the summer. Through REU, I interned for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. I also interned through the NASA Academy Program at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center (GSFC). I enjoyed both experiences and eventually returned to GSFC during my first two years of graduate school to conduct research in the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Lab.
While at GSFC, I became more and more interested in the characterization of exoplanets. At the time, there were all sorts of interesting theories about ocean planets: theorized exoplanets made mostly of water and/or ice. I decided that I would study more about ocean worlds in our own solar system in order to become more adept at characterizing ocean exoplanets.
I then applied for a summer internship at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and spent about three months there learning about Jupiter's moon Europa. I became fascinated with this icy world (and with planetary science in general), so much that I changed my course of study to focus on planetary geophysics in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at Johns Hopkins University. I was able to continue the Europa research I'd already started at APL and also combine it with the knowledge of terrestrial volcanic processes gleaned from my advisor at Hopkins in order to conduct thesis research on cryovolcanic and cryomagmatic processes on icy satellites. During my last year of graduate study at Hopkins, I was awarded a NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship to study volcanic processes on Venus at GSFC.
Tell us about your work.
I am an Ocean Worlds Planetary Scientist, which means that my work is focused on studying our solar system’s dwarf planets and the moons of the giant planets. Many of these worlds are believed to currently contain oceans beneath layers of surface ice, or they may have had internal oceans in the past. I model geological processes on these worlds and on planets like Venus, with an emphasis on volcanology and magmatism. When it comes to icy moons like Europa and dwarf planets like Ceres, this volcanology takes the form of cold, icy volcanism, called, cryovolcanism. I’ve recently begun to consider the processes that might allow for this cold volcanism to occur on low-mass extrasolar planets.
I use mathematical models to simulate conditions on all of these worlds. These models also allow me to study the internal structures of these rocky and icy bodies, and to investigate how their surfaces have been transformed over time by volcanic or cryovolcanic eruptions, tectonics, impact cratering, etc.
I’m really excited about the work I do because it allows me to apply what we know about the rocky bodies in our solar system to the icy bodies in our solar system. For instance, it's so exciting to study volcanism on Earth and Venus, and then compare it to volcanic processes on bodies such as Enceladus, Triton, and Europa where lavas could be aqueous solutions of water, salts, and volatiles instead of the molten rock that we're used to dealing with on the terrestrial planets.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
My absolute favorite moment was being invited by Dr. Elizabeth Turtle to join her proposal for the Europa Imagining System (EIS) back in 2014. My second most favorite moment was the afternoon that we found out that EIS has been selected as the camera system for the Europa Clipper mission. I was a postdoc at the time, and I had spent so much of my graduate career studying Europa. I was so overjoyed to learn that I’d be a part of the team that would send another spacecraft to my favorite moon.
Other moments include spending the summer after graduating from A&T studying Mars' remnant magnetic field in the Planetary Magnetospheres Lab at GSFC. My advisor, Mario Acuña, showed me how to bring up Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) images of the Martian surface on my computer. This was the first time I'd ever laid eyes, firsthand, on images of another planet's surface returned from a spacecraft. I remember just being in awe.
I also remember pouring over mosaics of Europa and learning to identify and map chaos regions, impact craters, and other surface units during my first summer at APL. Once again, I felt that there was a whole other alien world at my fingertips.
Who inspired you?
NASA astrophysicist Dr. Beth Brown was one of my biggest inspirations. I met her at an American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference my senior year in college. She was such a great role model and mentor to me. In fact, she was the one who encouraged me to apply for the internship studying Europa at APL.
Dr. Benita Bell has also been a great inspiration. While an undergraduate at North Carolina A&T, I took a “Women in Science” course that she taught at neighboring Bennet College. The course was wonderful in that it focused on the history and accomplishments of African American women in STEM, included group discussions and presentations on navigating professional STEM spaces, and stressed the importance of taking pride in being a woman in science. Dr. Bell really emphasized the importance of bringing our whole selves to the table, and she taught us that being women in science didn’t require us to be like anyone else – or to let go of our own identities. Since both North Carolina A&T and Bennett College are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the class was composed of African American women who were pursuing undergraduate degrees in the physical and biological sciences. Everything that Dr. Bell taught us in that course has played a major role in my positive growth and development as a scientist.
Since then, I've really been inspired by Dr. Louise Prockter. I started working with Dr. Prockter my first summer at APL and continued working with her while pursuing my Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Prockter is a great scientist – she really took me under her wing and has also served as a great mentor.
During my undergraduate years, I just felt so inspired by being able to obtain my undergraduate degree in the same physics program where NASA astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair obtained his degree.
I must also mention my physics teacher at Dudley High, Mr. John Brown, who was the first person to really encourage me to seek a career path in the space sciences. He set in my mind early on that it was absolutely possible for me to succeed in a field where there weren't many African American women or men. Having that type of "You can do it" encouragement at an early age goes a long way.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Be bold. Search out people who work in your area of interest. I gained a lot of opportunities by just emailing folks that I thought did cool research and inquiring if I could be their summer intern.
Also, becoming a professional scientist requires, above all else, a willingness to persevere. It will require you to take upper-level science and math classes in high school and college that others generally try to shy away from. If you can keep in mind that the end goal is being able to have a job where you do something that you really love every day, you'll get through it and probably also enjoy the journey.
If possible, find mentors either at your home institution or elsewhere that can encourage you, give you good advice, and help you chart out the path that's best for you. To that end, I encourage undergraduate and graduate students, especially those from groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM, to get involved with organizations like the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), the Society of STEM Women of Color (SSWOC), the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). These organizations are full of great scientists and engineers who are willing to share their experiences and provide great mentorship.
But remember, ultimately your success is up to you. Mentors can help guide you but are not crutches. You must take the initiative and do the work to ensure that you’re progressing positively towards your goals.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
This probably sounds like a cliché, but take as many math and science courses as you can – it's important to have that foundation. Math will give you the tools needed to investigate the most interesting phenomena in our solar system – and beyond. Science courses, especially physics, give you experience in looking at the total problem, so to speak. They also teach you how to apply your math skills to the big picture.
While you're learning science and math, also embrace your humanities courses. Some of the most successful scientists I know are experts when it comes to being able to effectively communicate their ideas and results to non-scientists. There's no better way to improve your communication skills than taking courses that force you to read and write on a regular basis. To that end, because being a theorist requires, to some degree, being able to think outside the box, classes such as creative writing can be really helpful in honing original thinking.
Most of all, I would say really spend some time finding out what areas of science or engineering interest you the most and what you really like to do. Read articles to learn about new innovations and groundbreaking research in the STEM fields. Also, look for opportunities such as internships where you can get hands-on experience working in an area that interests you.
What do you do for fun?
I love to read, and I love to write about non-science things – hence my love for creative writing. I began taking ballet as a stress-reliever during my last year and a half of grad school – I really need to pick that up again. I also like to sew, enjoy football (Go Ravens!), and just hanging out with friends and family. I’m a newlywed, so lately I’ve really been enjoying spending time with my husband, Lamar.
What is your favorite NASA space image and why?
One of my favorite NASA space images is the color image of Europa’s Conamara Chaos region taken by the Galileo spacecraft. This is the first region of Europa that I ever laid eyes on, and it’s the region that Louise Prockter and Wes Patterson taught me to map during my first summer internship at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).
I didn’t know it then, but my career as a planetary scientist started that summer. I have such fond memories of that experience and images of Conamara are a wonderful reminder of why I love what I do and all of the good people that I’ve worked with along the way.