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Vicky Hamilton: There’s no one pathway that’s right for everybody

November 4, 2010

Vicky HamiltonDr. Victoria Hamilton is a planetary geologist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO.  Hamilton uses spectroscopy to study the mineralogy and igneous processes/histories of planetary bodies, primarily Mars and Earth, although she also has experience with volcano-tectonic features on Venus. “The main focus of my research,” she explains on her web site, “is understanding the spectral features of minerals and rocks in the visible, near infrared, and thermal infrared portions of the electro-magnetic spectrum and using this knowledge to identify and/or characterize the rocks and minerals on planetary surfaces. These data are useful because we can obtain them without being in contact with the planetary surface; we do this via remote sensing (the collection of data from instruments carried by aircraft or spacecraft). Most of my recent work has focused on analysis of data from ongoing NASA spacecraft missions at Mars.”  One of her most recent publications is an invited review:

Hamilton, V. E. (2010), Thermal infrared (vibrational) spectroscopy of Mg-Fe olivines:  A review and applications to determining the composition of planetary surfaces, Chemie der Erde, 70, 7-33, doi:10.1016/j.chemer.2009.1012.1005.

I interviewed Vicky on 2 March 2010 at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, as part of the Discovery Program Oral History Project and the Women’s Voices Outreach Project.  The following is excerpted from our conversation:

Vicky, how did you first become interested in space science?

I was always intrigued by space science as a child. But I never really thought about a career in science because I was always much, much better at and more comfortable with things like English and social studies and psychology and those kinds of–the softer science, social science kind of things. I didn’t find science until I was a junior in college.  I had taken a geology class to fulfill a science requirement, and the teachers there were like, you’re good at this, you should take another class.  They talked me into minoring in geology. Then I was looking for something to do one summer, and I ended up getting a PGGUR [Planetary Geology and Geophysics Program Undergraduate Research Program] internship at the Jet Propulsion Lab….   I spent six or eight weeks there working with the Magellan team.

I think, probably within the first week, I thought this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.  I’m one of the first dozen people on the planet to see these images of Venus, and this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.  At the end of the eight weeks, I said, can I stay? … It was a very late decision, but it’s one that’s worked out really well for me and I love it.

It’s exciting to hear that you can still reach people at a later age than many people assume. What were you looking for when you went to graduate school?

I was fortunate that I had people around me at JPL who I could go to for advice. I was able to go to them and say, okay, where are the places I should be looking at?  They said, these are really the top places you want to go, and these are the people you want to think about working with.  They were really good about giving me the pros and cons of all these different places and people.  In the end, I felt like Arizona State was the right fit for me.  It turned out to be a great experience.

 Wonderful.  And then, you finished and you were looking around again.

Yes, I was looking around again.  And there was an added complication at this point in time, because I had met somebody in grad school, as so many of us do.  And so, we were trying–

Where else would you meet him?

Yes, exactly!  Where else would I be at any given time to meet anybody?  And so, we were trying to figure out was there somewhere we could go together, were we going to have to split up for a while and all that. In the end, I had a tough decision between staying where I was and continuing to do postdoctoral work with my grad school advisor, or going to JPL to be with my boyfriend.  Ultimately, I decided that, for a variety of reasons, I really wanted to stay at ASU because I was finishing my dissertation when Mars Global Surveyor arrived at Mars with TES and the data would be coming to ASU.  But it did mean that I had to separate physically from my significant other while he went to JPL to do his postdoc.  And so, we did that for a couple of years, but we always had in the back of our minds that the next step, we wanted to try to solve this two body problem and find a place that would hire both of us.

Did you find a place like that?

We did.  At the time that we started looking, the University of Hawaii was hiring, and we were both offered positions, which we accepted.  [Later,] we recognized that just what we wanted in an employer in the broadest sense of the term was not really compatible with the way things worked in Hawaii.  We ultimately decided that the right decision was for us to leave because we knew that the institution wasn’t going to change and it was going to be pointless to sit there and kind of butt our heads up against something that wasn’t working for us.  Also at the time, my father was also going through some health issues, and we decided that we really wanted to be back on the mainland to be closer to our families.

It was an amicable departure, and we moved to Colorado where we’re both now working for Southwest Research Institute, which is a private, non-profit R&D company.  We’re essentially soft money.  We do get some time, about 20 percent of our time, paid for by the company.  They offer a lot of really good benefits that a lot of people don’t think about.  It’s turned out to be a really liberating environment in that regard because it is run like a business.  It’s run very efficiently.  It’s a company that really does everything it can to help you as a scientist be successful.

What form does that take?  How is it really different being a research scientist at one place versus another?  You now have a lot to compare, for scientists our age.

As a researcher, you always have overhead on the grants that you generate, you’re in theory supposed to be getting services and support for that overhead.  The reality is is that in most places, most universities, you’re not really getting a whole lot other than the lights and the phones.  But, at the company we’re at now, they really do understand.  They operate it as a business, that investing money helps you make money.  So, for example, there are internal research funds available, and the Institute is often willing to contribute money for equipment, if you can make a case that it will augment the company’s capabilities and make it more competitive for research dollars.

That’s unheard of at most universities.

We also have incredibly, incredibly helpful administrative staff.  People at universities tend to be overworked and underpaid, and that makes it hard for them to do everything that’s needed or that they might want to do. But at this company I’m working at, the administrative staff really understand that they’re there to do the things that free us to do our science and write our proposals and generate the money, and their attitude is, you don’t need to photocopy that.  I’ll do it.  I’ll do this.  I’ll do that.  You go write your [proposal]–do your science.

That’s refreshing.

It’s astonishing.  It works like a well-oiled machine.  Everybody gets along great, people are very happy.  There’s vibrant science interaction. Part of the thing about the transition from faculty member to doing this is that I think, like a lot of things, when you go to grad school everybody says, oh, well, a faculty position is the be-all, end-all sort of thing.  But, being a faculty member and teaching is very hard.  It’s very time consuming, especially if you want to do it well.  I didn’t get into this field to teach.  I don’t have a problem with teaching.  I don’t dislike teaching.  It’s just not my thing.  I didn’t mind doing it, but I never felt like I was doing it quite as well as I should.  In a way, I’m kind of glad not to have that pressure because I don’t want to do it badly.  In a way, now, I’m even happier because I spend all of my time–well, not all of my time doing research, but a lot more of my time doing research and not feeling badly that I’m not doing my research or teaching as well as I’d like. 

Right, right.  When you’re pulled in so many directions, it gets very hard.

Yes.  And teaching isn’t for everybody, either.  There are some really bad teachers out there.  We’ve all had them.  And it’s just like, oh man, dude, you should just go do something else because this is not working for anybody. [laughter]

When did you first get involved in NASA missions? 

I literally started first working with spaceflight data as soon as I started doing this internship at JPL with the Magellan team.  I was doing mapping of Venus radar images, looking at volcano-tectonic features on Venus and trying to understand them.  I was working with space flight data, and peripherally around people and meetings having to do with ongoing space flight operations from day one.  Part of that excitement and energy was what got me so excited about this…. the Magellan data came down and you could look at it on computers, but it was still fundamentally something that people made mosaics of and came in with these big giant printouts and slapped them down on tables and people stood over them and looked at them.  That was a very peripheral involvement, and I was nowhere close to being anything like a team member on that.  But, that was the first interaction with a mission team that I had….

I was incredibly fortunate to have been brought into that environment and to have all these other scientists welcome me into it and be enthusiastic about sharing it.  That was really great.  That was, in fact, a great deal of the reason that I ended up going to ASU, too.  I had heard really wonderful things about Phil Christensen, that he was a really great guy and a great advisor.  I was very excited by the opportunity of going to grad school and now not just knowing about Venus, but also learning something about Mars….  I went there to work on the instrument, the thermal emission spectrometer that was on the Mars Observer mission.  Mars Observer failed to go into orbit just a few weeks after I got there to go to graduate school.  Phil kind of looked across the room at me at one point and said, “So, are you staying?”  And I was like, yes, sure, why not.  I ended up doing a dissertation that was largely laboratory spectroscopy-based.  In hindsight, it turns out to have been a great thing, because I had no idea what I was doing with spectroscopy.  I’d never done anything like it before.  In the end, it turned out that being able to do all that lab work for the Ph.D. set me up really well for the post-doc.

THEMIS, an imaging spectrometer that is onboard [2001 Mars] Odyssey was starting to return data as I was a post-doc.  So, I transitioned to working with that instrument’s dataset.  I would have been a part of the Mars Exploration Rovers team if I’d stayed at ASU.

But you found other things to do.

I found plenty to do.  I’ve been doing laboratory spectroscopy and starting to use that to diversify a little bit into geoarchaeology and marine geology.…  Relatively recently, somebody I had talked to about doing meteorite spectroscopy came to me and said, hey, we’re putting in a mission proposal to go collect a sample from an asteroid and we might want some instruments.  Would you be interested in participating in this?  So now, I’m on this New Frontiers proposal called OSIRIS-REx, and I’m the deputy instrument scientist for a thermal infrared instrument….  So, with any kind of luck, we’ll get selected for flight and I’ll be very busy for the next 10 years.

Wonderful, wonderful.  Well, I have to end with the classic question that you knew I was going to ask.  What would your advice be for people just making the transition from graduate school to post-doc, for instance, or thinking about a permanent career?  Do they have to look just at the university?

I think it’s a good thing to look at. But I think there are a lot of people who go through grad school not knowing what they’re being trained for, and then figuring it out near the end, figuring out you’re being trained to become another faculty member, you’re being trained to write proposals and generate money.  And a lot of people, that’s not really what they got into it thinking they wanted to do, and some of them don’t want to do it.

And so, my real advice would be ask yourself what is it you really like about what you’re doing and what is it you don’t like about what you’re doing, and then try to find a position that enables you to do the parts you like.  It’s okay if you end up deciding, “I don’t want to be a researcher, I don’t want to have to write proposals, I don’t want to have to write papers.”  That’s okay.  I think there’s a stigma, too, associated with either not finishing [a Ph.D.] or with finishing and then leaving.  And I think that’s unfortunate.

Talk to people, find out what other options are out there.  If it’s working at a center like JPL or APL or Marshall or–there’s a lot of places where you don’t necessarily have to be at a university if you’re not interested in teaching.  Or, if you are interested in teaching, there are lots of community colleges that would love to have people who are doing some active research on the side if it turns out that research isn’t what you like about it.  Be open to options;there’s no one pathway that’s right for everybody.

Thanks, Vicky!

Dr. Hamilton 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. Kristine permalink
    November 19, 2010 6:19 am

    I love the part of article that say’s “I was fortunate that I had people around me at JPL who I could go to for advice. I was able to go to them and say, okay, where are the places I should be looking at?”. It is really awesome for us to find someone through our ups and downs. This is a great article that anyone could found some useful facts.

    all women stalk

  2. November 8, 2010 11:17 pm

    Thanks so much for your insights! It is nice to hear from someone who has done both the academic and the purely research side of things and you have some well thought out comments that I hadn’t considered before.

  3. Rachel permalink
    November 4, 2010 2:27 pm

    Nice interview, Vicky!

    I particularly liked this quote “As a researcher, you always have overhead on the grants that you generate, you’re in theory supposed to be getting services and support for that overhead. The reality is is that in most places, most universities, you’re not really getting a whole lot other than the lights and the phones.” That’s one thing that frustrated me when I had my first funding as a postdoc in a university setting. It was a hassle just figuring out who could pay for me to get a phone with a speakerphone and mute option for telecons. I brought 10’s of thousands of dollars per year in and they can’t figure out how to buy me a phone?

    Overhead soapbox aside, I want to echo what Vicky said about that from grad school on you need to figure out what you like and don’t like. Different pathways offer different mixes of the standard tasks, so if you love research and kind of like teaching, sometimes you can go to a research “company” or lab but still teach as an adjunct at a local school on occasion.

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