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Catherine Neish: Exercise your communication skills

October 15, 2010

Dr. Catherine Neish

Dr. Catherine Neish is a postdoctoral fellow at the Applied Physics Laboratory at John Hopkins University (APL).  Catherine was one of the very first women to nominate someone for this feature; I turned the tables on her and asked her to tell us about herself!  The questions and answers from our online interview follow, but first, her publications so far in 2010:

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

I have been interested in space science since childhood, and was a voracious reader of all types of science fiction, including all of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels.  However, I did not become seriously interested in a career in the field until high school (prior to that, I wanted to play oboe in a Broadway pit band).  In grade ten, I competed in a space settlement competition sponsored by NASA Ames, and my “Space Station Terra Nova” won first prize in my age category.  That gave me an opportunity to visit the NASA center, and experience the bustle surrounding the landing of Pathfinder on Mars.  Two years later, I won an essay contest sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency, and attended the International Space School in Houston, staying with astronaut Chris Hadfield and his family during my time in Houston.

By then, I was hooked, and decided to major in astronomy as an undergraduate.  Fascinated by the movie and the novel Contact, I applied for a summer research internship at Arecibo Observatory.  There, I had my first taste of planetary science, working with Ellen Howell and Mike Nolan researching asteroids with radar.  I was fascinated with radar – it was the first “active” astronomy I had ever seen.  You could tweak the buttons and knobs and learn different things about the asteroids, instead of simply collecting what they reflected from the Sun. During that summer, Ellen told me about her alma mater, the University of Arizona, and its strong planetary science program.  I applied to their graduate program several months later, and the rest is history!

2. You have worked at two outstanding research institutions, with what I would guess are very different cultures.  How is working at a lab like APL different from a university?

The culture at APL is very different from the culture at LPL, and I think there are pros and cons to each type of institution.  When I first arrived at APL, I was struck by the structure built into the institution.  You need badges to enter the buildings, you need to complete security training, fill out public release forms, screen visitors, etc.  You can’t simply invite someone to stop by your office, say, like I was able to at Arizona.  Pure research scientists represent a relatively small proportion of the employees at APL, so we don’t necessarily fit into the mold of a typical worker here (though I know our group supervisor, Louise Prockter, tries to shield us from many of these “annoyances”).  On the other hand, you are surrounded by people doing cutting edge spacecraft development and operations, and the excitement surrounding active spacecraft missions returning new data.  And there are structures in place that are very beneficial – support for writing proposals, scheduled evaluations to get feedback on your performance, etc. that I didn’t have at Arizona.

The other big difference is the lack of students.  There are no classes to teach, and few undergraduate and graduate interns to work with.  This, of course, frees one to do more research and spacecraft operations, but hinders cross-generational discussions somewhat.  Along those lines, I have seen less cross-departmental collaborations here at APL than I did at Arizona.  However, that might be a function of the work that I do here, and the fact that much of the work at APL is classified. But really, the most important thing is that in both institutions I am/was surrounded by a diverse group of smart and active planetary scientists, which is great for forming new collaborations and coming up with new ideas.

3. How did you become involved with the Chandrayaan-1 and LRO Mini-RF science teams?

Though I have only been involved with the Chandrayaan-1 and LRO science teams for a year and a half, this story actually starts five years ago.  As a second year graduate student, I started working with Ralph Lorenz, who was a Cassini RADAR team member.  As a result, a large portion of my PhD dissertation focused on radar observations of planetary surfaces, in particular Titan, but also the Earth and Venus.  Several months before I was scheduled to graduate, I received a mass e-mail sent by Andy Rivkin (another LPL alum) to grads@lpl, advertising a new postdoc position at APL, working with radar data from the Moon.  Though I knew very little about the Moon at that time, I hoped my radar experience would be attractive to the team.  Luckily, it was, and I started working there several months later.

I guess the moral of this story is twofold:  (1) It is important to network, and the people you meet through your graduate work are probably some of the most important parts of that network, and (2) postdoctoral positions can be a good way to stretch you expertise beyond what you completed during your PhD.  By learning to work with lunar data, I’m opening myself up to new research projects, new collaborations, and new funding sources that I wouldn’t have working with Titan data alone.

4. Tell us about LunGradCon.

LunGradCon is a new scientific meeting for graduate students and early postdocs studying lunar science, with a particular focus on the core research areas of the NASA Lunar Science Institute (who has supported and funded the conference).  LunGradCon is based on the highly successful AbGradCon, which was started in 2003 and has been supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.  (I personally have attended four AbGradCons, including the first international meeting, held this year in Sweden.) The aim of LunGradCon is to give young lunar researchers the opportunity to present and discuss their scientific research in an environment of their peers.  Giving scientific presentations is a key skill for any scientist, but at large conferences, many graduate students are not given the opportunity to present orally.  And even when they are given the opportunity, it can be an intimidating experience, given the presence of older, more established researchers in attendance.  LunGradCon gives young scientists the chance to practice their communication skills in a low-stress environment.  It also exposes them to the broad range of lunar science being done by their peers, encouraging new collaborations with new friends and colleagues.  Developing a wide network of colleagues is another very important aspect of career development, so we arranged for group lunches and mixers to encourage interaction between participants.

I got involved in LunGradCon when I was contacted by Andrew Poppe, a graduate student at the University of Colorado, with whom I had attended the JPL Planetary Science Summer School.  He and another graduate student, Addy Dove  (and later Amy Fagan), had come up with the idea for LunGradCon, and wondered if I would like to help organize the meeting, given my past experience with AbGradCon.  We worked together organizing the meeting, through telecons and meet-ups at LPSC. LunGradCon was held at NASA Ames, two days prior to the NASA Lunar Science Forum, and about twenty-five graduate students and early postdocs attended.  The feedback was extremely positive, so we’re hoping that this workshop will continue at future NLSI meetings, supported by upcoming graduate students.

5. What advice would you offer to students considering a career in planetary science?

Planetary science is a very broad field, with work ranging from laboratory analysis to computer modeling to remote sensing (and so on), on topics ranging from geology to astrobiology to chemistry to atmospheric physics (and so on). My advice for students considering a career in planetary science would be to “try out” as many of these sub-fields as possible, through high school and undergraduate internships, and later, graduate course work and training, to determine what it is that really excites them about planetary science.  Then, find a graduate program that can support that interest, or (if you’re still undecided) gives you the flexibility to try out new fields.  You’ll be the most successful if you really love what it is you’re doing.

My other advice would be exercise your communication skills whenever you get a chance, skills such as writing, public speaking, and working in teams. These are things that are often not explicitly taught in school, but I would argue represent half of your work as a scientist.  You can find ways to practice these skills outside the classroom by getting involved in student government, participating in public outreach, writing for a newspaper or a blog, and so on.  In my own case, I spent many years as a member of the graduate and professional student council at the University of Arizona, learning how to articulate the needs of students to the university administration, and negotiate solutions to those needs. 

Thanks, Catherine! 

Dr. Neish 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!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Shawn permalink
    October 15, 2010 5:31 pm

    Really great interview! Thanks for the womeninplanetaryscience blog.

Trackbacks

  1. Part-Time Funding Discussion « Women in Planetary Science: Female Scientists on Careers, Research, Space Science, and Work/Life Balance

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