Marshall Styczinski
Marshall in his office at University of Washington, where he’s a doctoral candidate in physics. The tattoo on Marshall’s chest partly visible in this photo is a logarithmic-scale diagram of the solar system. Credit: Ping-Chun Lin

Marshall “Moosh” Styczinski is a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Washington and works with the Europa Clipper mission. Here Marshall talks about living with depression, pursuing one’s passion, the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe and his solar system tattoo.

Where are you from?

I grew up in a tiny town called Portola, in California, near Lake Tahoe. I attended Portola High School.

What was your educational experience like?

I majored in physics at the University of California, Davis, and then joined a physics graduate school program at the University of Washington. It took me a long time to figure out that pondering the big questions, like “are we alone?” was what pushed me toward a career in science. I found a great home in the U.W. astrobiology program because astrobiology is all about studying those big questions in practical ways. Inspiring words from friends in the program helped me make the difficult decision to start over on my Ph.D. research – several years in – so that I could study something more relevant to those questions. I started working under Erika Harnett studying Europa, and I started collaborating with Steve Vance when he visited to give a presentation. Working with Steve then led me to the Europa Clipper mission.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

It probably started when I was about 7 years old. The Perseid meteor shower always comes along about a week before my birthday, and it must have been an exceptionally good year, because I remember being floored by how good the sky looked. My dad explained a little about what I was seeing, and that really sparked my curiosity.

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Marshall is exploring the possibility that the suspected global ocean beneath Europa’s ice shell might not be symmetric. Marshall is shown here giving a guest lecture for a course in space plasma physics at University of Oregon. Credit: Joe Caggiano and Paul Regensburger

Tell me about your work. What do you do?

I’m studying Europa’s subsurface ocean, trying to put better constraints on the way the water is distributed underneath the moon’s ice shell. I’m using data from the Galileo mission to relax [or loosen] our assumptions and say that maybe Europa’s ocean is not symmetric. The analysis should be helpful in interpreting the data we get from the upcoming Europa Clipper mission.

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

Your graduate field of study doesn’t have to be the same as your undergraduate major. If I had known that, I might not have studied physics in graduate school. My undergrad in physics prepared me well for subjects besides physics.

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At a Europa Clipper science meeting in 2020, Marshall touches a replica of “the monolith” — a fictional extraterrestrial artifact that plays a prominent role in the “Space Odyssey” novels of Arthur C. Clarke, as does Jupiter’s moon Europa. Marshall was drawn to a career in science through “big questions” such as whether life exists anywhere beyond Earth. Here, his UV-activated tattoo is glowing under a blacklight, along with the signatures of the Europa Clipper Science Team. Credit: Camilla Harris

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

I've sometimes struggled with depression, which is quite common for grad students. I applied to grad schools with my fiancée, and we were married for basically the entirety of grad school. When she graduated, she moved away for a new job. My depression deepened, and I used video games to cope, which was not effective. Failing to properly address my depression interfered with my research, and brought about the end of my relationship. I’m pretty extroverted most of the time, and when I spent time leaning on video games, it was very isolating. Eventually, I started going to therapy, and a couple good friends supported me really well. I sort of widened my social circle and put down roots. Support from friends and seeing a therapist helped me to stabilize, right the ship, and get back on course. I learned some very important lessons about keeping healthy by seeking support and appropriate treatment when it's needed.

Who or what inspires you?

Margaret Hamilton, who programmed the Apollo spacecraft. She inspires me, especially because of the incredible hurdles she had to overcome to get involved in the mission at all in that era, but also the monumental undertaking and achievement. We put people on the Moon in no small part thanks to her.

What are some fun facts about yourself?

When I lived in California, I rode a motorcycle. I loved it and miss it, even though the helmet would smoosh my mohawk. I really enjoy scientific writing, but my favorite part is getting all the formatting perfect, to match a given style guide. The tattoo on my chest is an accurate logarithmic-scale diagram of the solar system; I made the diagram myself, and the planetary alignment commemorates an important date. I'm especially pleased with the asteroids – they are statistically representative of their actual distribution in the asteroid belt!

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This Hubble image of nearly 10,000 galaxies is the deepest visible-light image of the cosmos. Called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, this image required 800 exposures taken over the course of 400 Hubble orbits around Earth taken between Sept. 24, 2003 and Jan. 16, 2004.

What is your favorite space image and why?

The Hubble Deep Field image. It was a dark patch of the sky, but the Hubble Space Telescope found it was full of galaxies. Images like that one are what make me 100 percent sure that we are not alone in the universe. In all of those galaxies, there have to be other life forms, and other intelligent life forms. I can’t look at that image and think that we’re alone. There’s no way.