Mona Kessel (right), her daughter Ellen (middle), and a friend (left) cycling on Skyline Drive in April 2014.

Where are you from?

I usually say that I was born and raised in Kansas, in the middle of the country, because I identify most with Kansas. I was born in Kansas, but I spent my K-12 years on the Kansas-Missouri border in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo. My grandparents had a farm in Kansas, an hour away, and I spent many happy days there. I went to college on the Kansas side, at the oldest university in Kansas, Baker University. Then I attended graduate school at the University of Kansas, so I became a Jayhawk. I am currently chairing the alumni committee for the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas, so the ties remain.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

My interest in outer space peaked when I was in graduate school at the University of Kansas. I have liked math since I was a young girl. Once I took physics in high school, became very interested in that, and so was pursuing a PhD in physics. I connected to outer space during my time in graduate school. The Department of Physics and Astronomy had an optical observatory. I had friends at the observatory, and we would go up and look at planets and stars on many evenings.

I am interested in the ideas and what you can discover from the data.
- Mona Kessel

Comet Halley (officially designated 1P/Halley) was coming through in '86. There was a lot of interest from the public, and just in general, to see Comet Halley come through. There is not a lot of light pollution in Kansas. We took some telescopes out into the countryside, where we could really get a good view. I took my family out there. It was a really exciting time and, for me, was the spark for outer space.

How did you end up working in the space program?

After completing my undergraduate degree in physics, I took a couple of years off to make some money because I was broke after college. I was working in the Kansas City area, so I went out to Kansas University, which was only an hour away, and visited a few times and got to know some people. One person was Tom Armstrong (now professor emeritus, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, Univ. of Kansas), who ended up becoming my advisor. He worked with the energetic particle instrument on Voyager and had a lot of NASA grants. Prof. Armstrong had a big group, and I just kind of slotted into that group.

A couple of the graduate students and I really hit it off, and we talked for hours and hours. They really inspired me to keep doing that kind of work. I'm not an experimentalist. I am interested in the ideas and what you can discover from the data. I am really good at identifying patterns, so that seemed like a natural thing for me to do. None of the other areas in physics appealed to me as much.

What is a program scientist?

A program scientist oversees science. For flight missions, the program scientist is responsible for ensuring the mission's science objectives are accomplished. If there are issues standing in the way of this, the program scientist works with the flight mission to mitigate and/or resolve those issues. For competed science programs -- those for which scientists compete for grant funding -- the program scientist is responsible for ensuring the best possible science is awarded and accomplished, overseeing panels, and monitoring awards.

I am a program scientist in the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, with several other titles under that. I am the executive secretary for the Heliophysics Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, which meets to solicit scientific and technical input from the heliophysics scientific community. I also work three exciting missions: the MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale) mission, the Van Allen Probes mission, and the TWINS (Two Wide-angle Imaging Neutral-atom Spectrometers) mission.

There are four sub-disciplines in heliophysics -- solar, heliosphere, magnetospheres (including Earth and other planets), and ITM (ionosphere, thermosphere, and mesosphere), which also includes Earth's and other planets' ionospheres and atmospheres. I am also the magnetosphere discipline scientist for the Heliophysics Division.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

One memorable achievement in particular was a paper on high-latitude reconnection that was the first observation of a type of reconnection found only at high latitude over Earth's magnetic poles. Reconnection occurs when solar magnetic fields stretched out in space away from the sun connect with Earth's magnetic field, resulting in an explosive release of energy. Because this was the first observation, it made the cover of the American Geophysical Union publication Geophysical Research Letters, back when it mattered because they were print journals. Now everything is online, so covers don't matter so much. Understanding reconnection is a goal now being actively pursued by the MMS mission.

But in a personal level, my favorite moment was when a young researcher, a young woman, told me that I was her role model. I hadn't known her before, but because of that I got interested in her career, and I followed what she has done since. There are a lot more women coming through now, and I recognize that I didn't have a woman role model to follow. My mom worked. She was a secretary when I was growing up. She went on to do other things later, but I didn't have a woman that I could look up to in a career path in which I was interested. I am glad that I can play that role for somebody. Surprised, but glad.

Mona Kessel and daughters
Mona Kessel (right) and her daughters, Sarah (middle) and Ellen (left), after the DC Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon on March 12, 2016.

Who inspired you?

There weren't very many women in physics when I was in school. I am one of the first in this area. Both my dad and my stepdad pushed me pretty hard to excel, and to do well, and to try things that women didn't normally do. There was never any holding me back, or "Don't do this because women don't do this," as far as professionally. It was always, "You go do it." They were the first people who inspired me.

In high school, the physics and math teacher that I had several times was also an inspiration. I really liked him, and we would talk about a lot of possible career paths. Engineering was what I thought I was interested in at the time because I didn't know that physics was something to do as a career until I got to university.

Then, when I was at Baker University for my undergraduate work, my main university professor was inspiring. Baker University was a small place, and we had a joint program with another small university, so they would put students together and university professors from each college. We took classes together. It was a vibrant program in undergraduate physics, and there were a lot of people really excited about what they were doing. It was a fun place to be.

During graduate school, my thesis advisor was another one who inspired me. He motivated students by example, by working harder than anyone else. And some of the other graduate students motivated me by how excited they were to be a part of the Voyager effort.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

I'll quote what one of my professors in grad school told me, "You really have to want to do it because it's not an easy career path. Physics is hard." If you want to get all the way through a PhD program, it takes some sacrifice and a lot of discipline. That, mixed with a flat funding level, means it's not something that you can absolutely depend on supporting yourself with. You have to get good at what you are doing, and to do that you have to have the commitment to see it through. If you don't have it, then go do something else. That said, if you really want to do it, it's a great place to be.

What do you do for fun?

Right now, it is the season of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. Kansas is the number one seed in the South Division this year (and frequently in the past). I am a basketball fan, and am following the tournament. But my number one fun sport is cycling. I commute to work when the weather is nice, usually from March to October. I like to go on multi-day trips. One of my daughters is an avid cyclist, and we go cycling together a lot. I also like cooking. I like to create new things, and I like to find new cookbooks. My husband cooks also, so we trade off. We both like to eat good food. In fact, that interest is one of the reasons we're married. He is also a physicist and so understands the demands of the job. When I get a chance, I also like reading and gardening. I have a pretty demanding job, timewise. I can only really keep up the cycling because I can commute, which doesn't take too much more time than using the D.C. metro system.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

I would tell them that in addition to taking all of the math and science that they can, don't neglect the other areas because they are also important. Writing, in particular, is one of the things you spend a lot of time doing, and also public speaking. You need to be informed in order to present a credible appearance. Be well rounded. Take English, take history, and take other things that you are interested in. Don't just take math and science. Learn a foreign language. We travel quite a bit in this profession, so having at least some familiarity with one or two other languages is helpful because it opens your mind up to the other cultures that you are going to visit.