Woman holding small child in front of observatory.
Visiting Jodrell Bank Observatory with my daughter when she was small. Credit: Veronica Allen

Education

Capistrano Valley High School, Mission Viejo, CA
University of Leeds (United Kingdom)
Physics with Astrophysics (BSc/MPhys)
University of Groningen (the Netherlands)
Astrochemistry PhD

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

My love of astronomy began when I was about 7 years old. I remember always looking out the windows of the car at night and making up my own constellations. I got my first telescope — a little $20 refractor — in second grade. I started checking out library books about astronomy — first children's books, then popular science books (mostly by Asimov). By the time I was 12, my parents had saved up to get me a big GPS-guided telescope and I was reading Michio Kaku books. I wanted to see and understand the universe!

How did you end up working in the space program?

I had dreamed of working at NASA most of my life. When I was finishing up my PhD, I applied for every postdoctoral position that I could conceivably do. I learned about the NASA Postdoctoral Program and saw that my (now) advisor was looking for a postdoc. He has done some important science in the astrochemistry field and I knew he would be a great person to work with. I wrote a fellowship proposal (16 pages long) about what kind of science I wanted to do at Goddard and it was approved.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

I am an observational astrochemist. This means that I use different telescopes around the world and in space to learn about the chemistry happening in astronomical environments. Before now, those environments were mostly gas around young stars much larger than our Sun, but I've expanded to studying young, Sun-sized stars and Solar System objects like Ceres. I hope to work with ocean worlds — Solar System bodies which may have liquid water — in the future. My observations mostly use the Atacama Large (sub)Millimeter Array (ALMA) which can see faint signals from complex molecules and image them at Solar System-sized scales. I aim to observe with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in the future to study what ice around young stars is made of.

Volunteering at International Observe the Moon Night at NASA GSFC
Volunteering at International Observe the Moon Night at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: Veronica Allen

What's one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

Career-wise: Find what you are best at and never try to be good at everything. Everyone has different skill sets. People are generally willing to collaborate, so find people who round out your knowledge base. Specifically, relating to astrochemistry, as an interdisciplinary science, you will likely go into it heavier on the astronomy side or the chemistry side, but you will have to learn something about the other side to understand what is going on. There are three main groups contributing to the astrochemistry knowledge pool: observers, experimentalists, and theoreticians. Where you fall among those groups will depend on your specific skills. Life advice: never give up on your dream. Just because your story is different from other people doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve happiness. The system might not be built for you, but there are usually people who want to help. Asking for help is another challenge in itself. But when you’re ready, someone will answer.

What has been your biggest challenge, professional or personal, and how did you overcome it?

My challenge has always been coming from a poor background. My parents did a good job of emulating the upper-middle class families in our town, but it was to our detriment. The worst point was a period during my junior year of high school when my family was living in a hotel. I decided to go to university in the United Kingdom (UK) because it would be cheaper. At the time, tuition there was abou $10,000 per year, and a Bachelor of Science (BSc) lasts three years. One year after I started my Bachelor’s degree, I had to drop out because I couldn’t afford tuition. My student loan co-signer was not able to pay for any further years of study. Hopeless, I took jobs cleaning dorms, tailoring, and working in bars, cafes, and restaurants to get by while I figured out how I would go back to do my degree. After five years, I gained the right to a UK student loan and lower tuition and started a four-year BSc/Master’s program at the University of Leeds. The amount given by the student loans wasn't enough to cover cost of living, though, so I continued working in the cafe nights and weekends. In my second and third year at Leeds, I generally had six-day weeks, as I had managed to arrange my class schedule into four days. After finishing my Master’s, I went to the Netherlands to do a PhD. There, the grad students were counted as employees, so I could finally stop working outside jobs. The pay was not quite enough to live on with a small family (I had my first child between the third and fourth year of my degree), but the Dutch social security system took care of us and I even had a second child during my third year as a PhD student. I have not entirely solved the problem of being poor, but we can pay the bills on a postdoc salary. I still dream of the day when I won’t have to worry about money.

Who inspires you?

I was 11 when the movie “Contact” came out. The first time I watched it, I was in love with radio astronomy. On top of that, the determination of main character Dr. Ellie Arroway inspired me to keep chasing my dream even when it seemed hopeless. I read the book soon after and have re-read it a dozen times since. It still amazes me how deeply Carl Sagan understood the difficulty of being a woman in science, desperately outnumbered and underestimated. Ellie’s strength has been lent to me on many occasions these past 20 years.

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

I studied one star-forming region (G35.20-0.74N) in great depth for most of my PhD. For this source, I found a difference in the chemistry of the gas surrounding the young stars on a relatively small physical scale using observations. I also learned an entirely new analysis technique (chemical kinetic modeling) to understand why the difference existed. When one of my models finally fit the data, I was so amazed. It still blows my mind that we can use theoretical models to understand real processes in the galaxy.

Agility practice with my dog Dragon
Agility practice with my dog Dragon. Credit: Veronica Allen

What are some fun facts about yourself?

I have two slightly unusual hobbies: dog agility and costume replication. I started doing agility with my dog when she was just about one; she is now 10. We have only ever won a 4th-place ribbon because we are both a little crazy on the obstacle course. The costumes I reproduce are mainly from Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but I also do historical dress from the Victorian, Renaissance, and Medieval eras.

What is your favorite space image and why?

I love the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula (Messier 16).

Beautiful clouds of gas and dust rise against a background of bright stars.
These towering tendrils of cosmic dust and gas sit at the heart of M16, or the Eagle Nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

It was the first poster I ever got and I have passed it on to my daughter. This nebula is breathtakingly beautiful, but also incredibly interesting! The follow up image from 2015 in the near infrared showing all of the young stars completes this dreamscape.

Star-filled view with faint outlines of gas clouds.
Observing in infrared light, Hubble pierced through the obscuring gas and dust of M16’s Pillars of Creation. This ethereal image reveals the young stars that are being formed within the pillars. It also uncovers a myriad of background stars that were hidden at visible wavelengths. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)