What first sparked your interest in space and science?
My dad was a geologist who loved the outdoors and shared that with me. I was a bit of a tomboy growing up, spending most of my time hiking, camping, fishing, rock collecting, horseback riding and chasing butterflies. My Dad used to joke that I spent so much time outside I didn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain. I took all the science classes I could in middle school and high school. In college, one of my favorite classes was astronomy, which merged my love of space and photography. I would spend overnights at the planetarium capturing images of the Moon, galaxies and nebulae.
After a long career in radio and TV news, I was drawn back to science by my youngest son, David, who was obsessed. David mowed lawns all one summer to buy his first telescope. I would join him for many nights of stargazing and meteor spotting. We went to science centers, NASA Goddard, and made countless visits to the National Air & Space Museum. We volunteered for the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival. We spent an evening with the telescopes at Kitt Peak in Arizona, which led to two summers of astronomy camp there. As his interest grew, so did mine. So I really have him to thank for planting the idea of working at NASA.
How did you end up working in the space program?
I had worked for decades in news and talk radio, and was getting weary of covering mostly bad news: crime, mass shootings, racial tensions and political gridlock. One day my son — then a teenager — said, "Mom, you should work at NASA." I sent a resume to NASA's Office of Communications in Washington. As luck would have it, it was the same day the agency realized it needed help with the upcoming New Horizons flyby of Pluto. In a short time I became the embedded writer and public affairs officer for the mission, working marathon hours with an incredible science team. It was both exhausting and exhilarating. I feel privileged to have shared in the experience of seeing humankind's first images of that strange and wondrous place. My small contribution was seeing the bright spot on Pluto and dubbing it the "heart," which exploded on social media. There were memes everywhere; Pluto captured the imagination of people all over the world. Kids wrote letters about how much they loved Pluto. For me, it was "love at first mission."
Tell us about your job. What do you do?
I work with scientists, engineers and a team of the best science communicators in the world. NASA is charged with telling our story to the widest possible audience, and we look to connect with diverse audiences in numerous ways: through video, social media, print products, graphics, art and music. Our team at JPL recently won a second Emmy award for multi-platform coverage of the InSight mission at Mars. Now we're planning the next Mars landing — a rover that will seek signs of past life and also test the first aircraft (a helicopter) on another planet.
My goal is to share not only the brilliant science and engineering behind our missions, but to showcase the people who make it happen: their hopes, dreams, setbacks and successes. What we do is as hard as it gets, and to succeed you need to take risks and "fail forward." My hope is that our work will improve science literacy, inspiring people to protect our home planet while seeking answers to fundamental questions like: Where did we come from? What is our destiny? Are we alone?
What advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?
Don't assume that you need to be a genius in math or science to work at NASA. We need all hands on deck and a variety of skills to succeed. Apply for internships so you can get hands-on training and find your passion. We've had people who started as interns at JPL and never left.
What has been your biggest challenge, professional or personal, and how did you overcome it?
I was a single mom with four kids when a mammogram revealed I had breast cancer. My kids ranged in age from an infant to age 12, and I was their sole provider. Fortunately, the cancer was detected early and I made a full recovery. But that experience taught me several things: never take your health for granted, make every day count, surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself, and don't sweat the small stuff.
Who inspires you?
My "shero" is Dr. Maya Angelou. As a girl, I read and wrote a lot of poetry and her poems were my favorites. Her book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was inspired by a traumatic experience in which she was raped and was subsequently mute for five years. A lot of people don't know that. She rose above that trauma and the barriers that come with being a woman and a person of color to become one of the greatest and most inspiring writers of our time. I had the privilege of working with Dr. Angelou on the "Oprah & Friends" satellite radio channel. One of the highlights of my life was joining her for a private dinner at her home in North Carolina, and she did the cooking! There were only three of us. It was a magical evening...unforgettable.
What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?
The New Horizons Pluto mission, the Cassini end of mission at Saturn, the InSight landing on Mars, and developing the first podcast for NASA HQ called "Gravity Assist." It was the perfect way to apply my skills in audio storytelling to my love of space.
What are some fun facts about yourself?
I grew up in Colorado and have climbed all but a handful of the 14,000-foot peaks. I had to be helicoptered off one peak after getting caught in a rockslide. I've finished a couple marathons and was at one time an accomplished trail runner. Today I stick to activities that are easier on the joints: hiking and hot yoga. I love animals and volunteer for rescue groups. I recently accepted a board position at my alma mater, the University of Colorado, to mentor young people who are interested in careers in journalism and corporate communications.
What is your favorite space image and why?
Most people expected Pluto to be a rather boring and cratered rock, but instead it revealed itself to be a wondrous place: with mountains, an exotic ice "heart," and even an atmosphere. It speaks to why we explore--it's not what we expect to find, it's the unexpected. Discovery united us and brings out the best in us.