Where are you from?
I am originally from Greensboro, North Carolina.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
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, and the creation of gigantic black holes and how they consume everything in their paths. After that lecture, I was pretty much hooked on space.
My second favorite moment has to be pouring over mosaics of Europa and learning to identify and map chaos regions, impact craters and other surface units...I felt that there was a whole other alien world at my fingertips.
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 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.
What is a Planetary Geophysicist?
A planetary geophysicist is someone who investigates processes that occur on the solid bodies in our Solar System, often using mathematical models to simulate conditions on these worlds. With these models we study the internal structures of rocky and icy bodies. We also study volcanic processes, tectonics, impact cratering, etc.
I am 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 satellites of the giant planets. 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.
Well, my career has really just begun, but I do have a few favorite moments.
I spent 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.
My second favorite moment has to be 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.
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 that NASA astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair obtained his.
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 aren't many women or minorities. 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; but 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 a mentor 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.
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've really begun to enjoy it. I also like to catch a good movie and just hang out with friends and family.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
This probably sounds 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.