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Christine Floss: There are many definitions of success

October 5, 2010

Christine Floss

Dr. Christine Floss is Research Associate Professor in the Physics Department at Washington University.  Dr. Floss trained as a geochemist there in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and, after five years working in Germany, returned to make Washington University and the McDonnell Center her research home. 

Dr. Floss studies meteorites and presolar grains, returned samples from the Stardust mission, Antarctic micrometeorites, and interplanetary dust to better understand the origin and evolution of the early solar nebula.  One of her recent publications is:

Floss C. and Stadermann F. J. (2009) Auger Nanoprobe analysis of presolar ferromagnesian silicate grains from primitive CR chondrites QUE 99177 and MET 00426. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 73, 2415-2440.

Dr. Floss graciously (and quickly!) answered my questions over email.

1. When did you first become interested in space science?

I actually came to space science rather late.  I was not particularly interested in science when I was a kid and for a long time I thought I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up.  By the time I got to college that idea had fallen by the wayside, but I really had no idea what I wanted to do.  I was attending Purdue University and majoring in German language and literature, mostly because my family is originally from Germany, but was also taking various different classes to try to find something I wanted make into a career (an accounting class quickly convinced me that business was not it!).  It took me almost the full four years, but I finally found it when I took an introductory geology class to fulfill a basic science requirement.  I was hooked from the start, thanks in large part to a wonderful TA for the class who had incredible enthusiasm for all those rocks and minerals.  Since very few of the classes I was taking as a language major could be applied to a science degree, I actually finished my B.A. in German and then essentially started over in the geosciences. 

Part of the way through this process I transferred to Indiana University, a move that turned out to have a big impact on my future.  I had not been there long before Abhijit Basu, a professor I knew only slightly, stopped me in the halls one day and said, “If you ever think you might be interested in working on some of the moon rocks, come and see me.”  It was a casual invitation that he probably made to many students, but it completely changed the course of my scientific career.  Like so many others of my generation, I vividly remembered the Apollo landings and was fascinated by the thought that man had walked on the moon.  But somehow it had never before occurred to me that all those rocks collected by the astronauts were available for research, or that one could make a career out of studying extraterrestrial materials.  I ended up doing a senior thesis with Basue on the Apollo 16 regolith samples and decided that I wanted to pursue the space sciences in graduate school.  By this time I was married and had just had my second child, so I was looking for a school with some flexibility that could accommodate a student who also had a family to raise.  Washington University was recommended by Dave and Marilyn Lindstrom and, indeed, my visit to the campus and especially to the ‘4th floor’ which at the time seemed to have more canine than human inhabitants, confirmed for me that this was the place for me.  To her credit, my future advisor, Ghislaine Crozaz, never expressed the slightest doubt that I could handle the demands of family and graduate school. 

For my PhD thesis I continued working on Apollo 16 samples, but also branched out into meteorite studies.  Over the years much of my work has involved the study of achondrites and chondrites, how they originated and what they can tell us about the origin of the solar system.  More recently my research has focused on the study of presolar grains and what we can learn from them about the formation and evolution of the stars and our galaxy.

2. After your Ph.D., your first job was as a research scientist at Max-Planck-Institut f. Kernphysik.  What took you to Heidelberg?  How did you find working in Germany different from working in the United States?

It’s probably not the politically correct thing to say, but I went to Heidelberg mostly for personal reasons.  My first marriage had ended while I was a graduate student and I had met my current husband, Frank Stadermann, while he was at Washington University for two years (he got his PhD in Germany, but did most of the work for his thesis in St. Louis with Bob Walker).  I was fortunate in that I was offered a position by Ahmed El Goresy to do experimental work to understand condensation and evaporation processes relevant to CAI formation. 

It’s difficult to name concrete differences between working in Germany and working in the US.  Day-to-day work at the MPI Kernphysik was not really that different from my experiences at Washington University.  Probably the biggest difference I noted in my five years there again relates to family issues.  I had somehow naively assumed that childcare possibilities in Germany would be, if not better than in the US, at least equal to what is available here.  However, after my husband and I had our daughter, I found out that while Germany has extensive benefits for mothers (and even fathers) trying to raise a family, those benefits are almost exclusively directed toward the idea that mothers stay home with their babies or young children.  There were very few options for parents looking for daycare so that both parents could work.  We spent the first year alternating our work schedules so that one of us could always be home with our daughter, before we finally found a woman running a babysitting service out of her home. 

3. You’ve now worked at Washington University for nearly 15 years.  What do you most enjoy about working at the McDonnell Center for Space Sciences?

One of the best aspects to working here is the interdisciplinary nature of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences.  The Mac Center consists of scientists from both the Physics Department and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, as well as colleagues from Chemistry and Engineering.  The opportunity to interact closely with members of different departments is important in the space sciences, where the problems that we address typically span traditional scientific disciplines.  For example, my current work on presolar silicate grains involves as much mineralogy (using compositional and structural information to understand the grain formation in circumstellar outflows) as it does astrophysics (using isotopic data to constrain stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis). 

The freedom to pursue my own research interests is another positive aspect to working in academia.  My husband and I are both completely supported by soft money and, while this does have its downside in terms of financial security, it also provides us with the opportunity to control our own research programs and follow those scientific questions we find most interesting. 

4. What balance do you find between work, life, and family?

One of the best aspects to working together with my spouse is being able to completely share the work that I love with the person who is most important to me in life.  Because of this there is no real division between my work life and my private life, but rather there is an ebb and flow to life that sometimes focuses more on work issues and other times moves more toward our private interests.  We both enjoy many of the same leisure activities, but we don’t feel any need to artificially control personal time versus work time; we are as likely to find ourselves discussing some scientific problem in the middle of a Saturday hike as we are to talk about a family scheduling issue in the middle of the workday. 

Balancing work with children is more difficult and there have certainly been trade-offs over the years.  Some decisions have felt like failures, such as when I quit field camp after two days, realizing that I was not going to be able to manage six weeks away from my 18-month-old after all, and had to settle for a B.A. rather than B.S. in geology.  But there have been highlights as well, most notably having my two oldest daughters with me when I defended my PhD thesis and going out to celebrate with them afterwards (there are probably not too many other people out there who had their thesis defense party at Chuckie Cheese!).  For the most part we have tried to reserve evenings and weekends for family activities, and we have made it a priority to be present for school or other extracurricular activities.  Family vacations have also played a big role in providing an opportunity for everyone to come together and spend time with one another.

5. Do you have any words of advice for others facing the two-body problem with a spouse also in planetary science, or for early career scientists in general?

I have been very fortunate that I’ve never really had to deal with the two-body problem.  After we were in Germany for five years, my husband and I were invited to come back to Washington University to work with our former advisors, Ghislaine Crozaz and Bob Walker, and we have been here ever since.  So I don’t really have any experiences or advice that I can pass on. 

More generally, it’s a cliché, but I can only say: find something that you love to do.  And don’t be afraid to follow a non-traditional path; there are many definitions of success and in the end it doesn’t matter if your route is more convoluted than the norm or it takes you longer to get there.

Thank you, Christine!

Dr. Floss is being featured here as one of 51 Women in Planetary Science, a series of interviews with successful women scientists on career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success.  Questions or suggestions for future interviews can be sent to us directly or to our email list, which all women in planetary science can join!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2010 8:10 pm

    family activities are very nice to have, it also strengthens the bond among family members ;’*

  2. December 1, 2010 5:53 pm

    family vacations in a nice tropical country would be very very nice `,*

  3. Vivian White permalink
    October 8, 2010 1:03 pm

    Dr Floss,

    Your interview was inspiring to me and now I am so sorry to hear about your loss. It is clear the whole way through the article what great partners you are to each other and I send my deepest condolences. May you and your children get through this impossible time together.

  4. October 7, 2010 10:37 am

    Our thoughts are with Christine this week. This is a beautiful testament to her life’s work, and we are grateful for her time.

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