Tell us about your job. What do you do?
I'm the Citizen Science Officer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. You could say I'm leading NASA's volunteer scientist program. What's new, of course, are the internet and the smart phone, which have made it possible to build tremendous teams with thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people — volunteers and professionals — all working together on the same science project, around the world. Altogether, NASA works with over a million citizen scientists. I also lead my own citizen science projects.
What first sparked your interest in space and science?
Even though I came from a background of privilege and education, I still vividly remember the first time I met an actual physicist, and the first time I met an actual astronomer. I grew up going to science museums and talking about science with my parents. But having a real scientist in front of me, talking about science with me, made the dream suddenly seem attainable. I wish I could create moments like that for everyone.
How did you end up working in the space program?
I got interested in making images of Earth-like planets around other stars. I first joined NASA in 2006 to help with the quest.
What's one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?
Ask yourself: what new science would you do if you had 10,000 helpers? My sense is that whenever there's big data, there's a need for citizen scientists, either to make sense of that big data, or to collect new data to explain what's in the first data.
Who inspires you?
King Arthur is my science hero. He sat with his knights at a table that was round to show that everyone would be considered equal. Now I get to work on building a round table for NASA science.
What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?
For my first citizen science project, I worked with the citizen-science platform Zooniverse to create "Disk Detective." It took me three years to find funding for it. But when I started meeting the passionate and talented citizen scientists, I got hooked. Now this is my favorite way to do science. I run a project called "Backyard Worlds: Planet 9," that's even more addictive. If you're an old-fashioned hermetic scientist, give citizen science a try! You're in for a treat.
What are some fun facts about yourself?
I play the drums and write three-minute pop and country songs. My songs have been heard on VH1, MTV, BET and PBS.
What is your favorite space image and why?
Some of our citizen scientists are also talented artists! Jonathan Holden made this image of a "Peter Pan Disk" for the Disk Detective project. It now hangs in the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.
The JunoCam project also showcases astounding images made by citizen scientists.