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Women in Planetary Science: Meet Catherine Johnson

July 2, 2010

Dr. Catherine JohnsonCatherine Johnson is a Participating Scientist on the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.  Curious about the work life of a participating scientist, I asked her to sit down with me for a few minutes at the 2010 LPSC.  She told me about MESSENGER, and a lot more.  Excerpts from our interview follow.

Niebur:  Can you tell me a little bit about what first attracted you to space science?

Johnson:  Sure, I think it was a few key things.  When I was a child, it was Voyager, reading about Voyager’s exploration of the outer solar system on the back of very grainy newspapers in the kitchen in the evenings, and thinking that that was just really, really cool.  And then, the launch of the space shuttle, for me, was a huge thing.  I just thought that this was the most exciting thing.  I just–I loved rockets.  I went to an all girls school and nobody there really talked about those things because that wasn’t what nice girls did. [laughter]  My mother was actually very supportive.  She’s not a scientist, but she was always interested in science.  And, she was always very practically minded.  Her attitude was do the math, physics, and chemistry now, and there’ll be more job opportunities.

Johnson:  In my undergraduate, which I did at the University of Edinburgh, in my third year of that, I did an exchange with the University of Pennsylvania, which was pretty unusual at the time because there weren’t really the financial set ups to do it.  But, they had an exchange that meant that you could go without paying a fortune.  And so, I did that.  I knew at the end of that year that I wanted to come back to the United States or to Canada for grad school.  Then, I was looking into different places and different people, and it was really–it was a coincidence.  I went back to Edinburgh, and one of my instructors there had been on sabbatical and had met somebody who was moving to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, (which is where I ended up going).  I ended up working with him.  This guy was interested in the Magellan mission to Venus.  And so, I went there on the chance that I might get to work with this guy and that this guy might be selected as a Participating Scientist.  It never occurred to me that those things were all slim chances.  But, they worked.

Johnson:  So, I did a Ph.D. thesis that was actually split, because I had already started working on some projects in geomagnetism by the time he found out about the Participating Scientist.  And so, I had a thesis that was split between terrestrial geophysics and planetary studies.  This has had its pluses and minuses.  In the long run, it’s been very advantageous because planetary science funding goes up and down a lot.  At the time, it went down incredibly.  The Participating Scientist Program for Magellan was supposed to be three years, and it was terminated after 18 months of funding.

Niebur:  I didn’t know that.  Was it abruptly, or did they have–?

Johnson:  –Abruptly.  That was right around the time where I was graduating with my Ph.D.  I had hoped to go to the Carnegie Institution for a postdoc, and basically everybody’s grant was cut, so people who had large programs with large numbers of students obviously their commitments were first of all, to their students.  So, what happened when that program was cut was that the postdoctoral opportunities just vanished.  That happened, and around the same time, Mars Observer had been lost.  The planetary program really had no new opportunities….  Most of my compatriots from the Magellan days are no longer in planetary science. They moved into other fields.

Johnson:  I got an NSF proposal funded, a little one, to do some paleomagnetic sampling.  And then, I got a NASA PG&G proposal funded.

Niebur:  Right away?

Johnson:  Yes.  Out of complete ignorance, I had put something in.  I put in a one-year proposal because I didn’t realize that they were typically three years.  And so, I put in this–I think it was an 18k PG&G proposal and it got funded.

Johnson: [After that] I went to Carnegie for just over 2 years and then, at that point, there was really still nothing like today’s planetary program. People weren’t hiring planetary scientists.  They were maybe hiring the odd astrobiologist, because this was 1998.  And institutions certainly weren’t hiring geomagnetists!

[At the time] I was single.  I was not quite 30, and didn’t want to live just anywhere.  My decision was that rather than get on a postdoc train which had no clear end in sight, and involved kind of moving every year and after two or three years, I would like to try something different. I felt, well, I have time to try something else and for it to not work out.  I loved living in Washington. So, I applied for this job at IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology).  It was a new position.  They’d been mandated to build an E/PO program, and so I was the first program manager.  And that was exciting to me, too, because I figured I could create something. It was a really great opportunity.   I knew after a year and half there it was not a job that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, that particular job in that particular place.  But, I learned a lot. In theory, I had a 10-month position at IRIS. I had my own grants at Carnegie, and so could do research, although in practice, that 10-month position didn’t really translate into two months for research!

The other thing, too, is that when you get to a certain point, you learn new things from your research and you learn new things from your teaching, but you don’t put yourself in situations that are so unfamiliar that they’re really uncomfortable.  And so, you kind of stop growing, because e.g., you know what a professional meeting involves.  Maybe you get asked to sit on a NASA advisory panel, you kind of know what that’s about.  I always have felt that one of the ways that you grow is by putting yourself in situations that are uncomfortable.  I wanted to keep doing that.  I just felt like I wanted to make sure that I got other skills, particularly management skills. So, that was why I took that job.  It was a lot of fun.

Niebur:  Well, how exciting.  Now–and then you came back?

Johnson:  I couldn’t quite give up doing bits of research here and there.  And it was sort of–it was a Saturday at 6:00p.m. and I’d been traveling for IRIS.  I was sitting at Carnegie doing research and I thought, “You know, I should really get paid to do this,” because it’s an addiction. I had to just have another go.

Johnson:  So, you asked about differences in institutions.  I moved to Vancouver because of the two-body problem.  I met my husband who was a postdoc at Berkeley.  When I met him, he was literally moving the next week to Toronto for a faculty position.  And so, Toronto to San Diego, you can make it work for a while and then you can choose to do things differently or not.  So, we then went through the period of time where you try a bunch of things and you hope one of them will work. So I interviewed at Toronto.  He didn’t actually interview with Scripps because there wasn’t a position.  But he came and looked at Scripps and they tried to do something.  And then, he interviewed for a position in Vancouver and was offered it.  And he said, “Well, you need to do something for Catherine.” … When he was actually offered the position, he said, “I’m not signing anything until you decide what you can do,” which was a pretty brave move.  One difference between the two institutions – they’re both public – was that UBC was able to make something happen on a short timescale and UCSD was not.  And so, that’s where we ended up.

Niebur:  So, what attracted you when you heard that there was going to be a MESSENGER call for participating scientists?

Johnson:  The thing that attracted me scientifically was how little we know, and how much more we would be able to know.  The reason I put a proposal in was I have a lot of experience in magnetic field modeling for the Earth, and I knew that there was nobody on the team who had that experience for Mercury’s internal field.  There were other people in the geomagnetism community who proposed and one of them is also on the team, which is great.  He’s also a participating scientist. I knew that the expertise was needed because it’s a really difficult problem to model and understand the internal field, given the geometry of the observations that we’ll get and given the interaction with the external field. I have some experience with gravity field modeling and with magnetic field modeling, both of which I could have proposed to do.  I decided to focus on the magnetic side of it because I knew that expertise wasn’t there yet.

Niebur:  Oh, very shrewd.  Very shrewd, and it worked.

Johnson:  It’s been great to work on. There are really good interactions among the team members. For me scientifically, it’s been incredible because I really didn’t know much about external magnetic fields. I’m “learning on the job” from people who are real experts in that.  That’s been really fun.  From a personal perspective, I had a master’s student (Hideharu Uno) who worked on the first and the second flybys, and he has a first author paper* from it.  He’s really been able to contribute substantively.  So, I know that my intuition around the fact that this was needed was correct.

Niebur:  Would you recommend that someone interested in working with missions but not ready to propose a whole mission do a PSP?

Johnson:  Oh, yes.  Absolutely.  That’s definitely the way to become involved.  In that position, if you’re selected, you can choose whether you just work on your own science, or if you want to and if there’s room for it then you could get much more involved in other aspects of the mission. …  I think that the really important thing is to make sure that the selection of participating scientists is based on their scientific contribution.

Niebur:  Absolutely.

Johnson: It seems like that has worked on this mission.  It was also very clear before the participating scientist program that– women and younger scientists were not well represented.  That was just a reflection of the distribution of women in our field. The participating scientist program has actually really helped that.  Now it reflects the distribution of women in the field at the mid-career level.

Niebur:  MESSENGER is a really good example of that, actually.  Of all the Discovery missions, there have been four PSPs.  On most of them, you had varying degrees of success with that, shall I say?  But almost half of the women selected for PSPs in Discovery have been on MESSENGER.

Catherine Johnson is a Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

*Uno, H., Johnson, C.L., Anderson, B.J., Korth, H., and Solomon, S.C.  (2009) Modeling Mercury’s internal magnetic field with smooth inversions.  Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Volume 285, Issue 3-4, p. 328-339.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 4:35 am

    Being interested in Space for most of my life I can say with authority that I envy this woman. There is something so rewarding about doing work that extends beyond this world. Mercury in itself is fascinating.

    Thank you for the great read and interview.

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