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Emily CoBabe-Ammann: Sometimes the path isn’t what you expect!

February 7, 2011

Dr. Emily CoBabe-Ammann is the Executive Director of Emily A. CoBabe & Associates, Inc., an education and public outreach company based in Boulder, Colorado.  She is currently the Higher Education lead for both the Planetary Science and Heliophysics SMD E/PO Forums, and the lead of the SMD Higher Education Working Group.  In addition, she is the Education lead for the Juno mission to Jupiter and works with the NASA Lunar Science Institute on media professional development programs and strategic education planning.

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

I started out in Earth Sciences — paleontology and organic geochemistry.  As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I got involved in a research project examining a new ceratopsian dinosaur and from then on, I was hooked!  At the same time I started working in the local geology museum, developing education programs and exhibits, which I found exciting and meaningful.  I went from Wisconsin to Harvard and got my Ph.D. with Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard University in 1991.  At the time, I was combining paleontology and geochemistry, looking for biomarker and isotopic signatures of chemosynthesis/chemosymbiosis in lucinid bivalves and trying to determine whether chemosynthesis impacted evolutionary patterns.  (The answer, by the way, is yes, there are markers and yes, chemosymbiosis does appear to have an impact on diversity patterns.)

After graduating, I did all the things that one is supposed to do, in order to be a ‘success’ in science.  I did post-docs at the University of Bristol, the University of North Carolina, and Indiana University.  Then I headed to a faculty position at the University of Massachusetts.  It was there that I began to ask the questions that I should have asked much, MUCH earlier:  What did I want to be when I grew up?  Did I really want to do research as my primary activity?  I was trying to get a laboratory off the ground, keep up with the teaching, trying to find funding – and I wasn’t sure this is what I wanted to do.  I eventually left the University of Massachusetts, looking to find a better fit.

2. What was the transition?

After I left Massachusetts, I headed to Colorado, where my soon-to-husband was working.  I spent about 18 months, trying to decide what I really wanted.  I knew it wasn’t a lab job.  I knew it wasn’t research. I knew that I liked teaching, both at the undergraduate level and education majors.  During my time in Massachusetts, I had also learned that I was a good strategist, particularly when it came to federal funding (e.g., NSF, NASA, DoE).  And the more I thought about it, the more the idea of science education as direction appealed to me. 

After applying for dozens of jobs, I was offered a job with the Science and Math team at McREL (Mid-Continent Research on Education and Learning) the same day I found out I was expecting our first child.  (Nic is now 9!)  I was very fortunate that the McREL group was willing to hire me as a contractor to identify model teacher professional development programs and their commonalities.

But about the same time, I started work in another area:  Consulting to science education centers.  I began with the Science Education Center at the Medical Center of Wisconsin (in my hometown).  My job was to take the great ideas that the director has, look at the staff and put together a staff development plan, and ready the organization for applying to federal grants programs.  I would write the proposals and then do the evaluation on the back end.  Soon, I began to pick up other clients.  I found a great love for this kind of large-scale organizational work, as well as for tracking federal funding of science education. 

3. Then what?

About that time, the University of Colorado was looking to develop a position that coordinated education and public outreach across the campus.  I had been asked to come in to look at the position, and someone sent me a job ad for a position in education and pubic outreach at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) – an example of synergy on the campus.  On a whim, I applied for the position and found a home for the next 6 years.  When I started at LASP, they had no E/PO program.  I had 80 scientists, 120 engineers and mission ops specialists – all working for great instrument programs and missions – largely in planetary sciences and heliophysics. 

At LASP, I learned the terrain of NASA Education and Public Outreach – no easy feat!  Eventually, I added some great staff.  Together, we built the LASP E/PO program from nothing to the 3rd largest E/PO program (outside of NASA centers) and had a 90% proposal success rate.  At LASP, I also got to expand my areas of interest into media affairs and communication strategies.  I couldn’t have asked for a better environment to learn about E/PO.

A little over a year ago, I had an opportunity that was too good to turn down.  I left LASP and started my own business.  I took on contracts with two of the NASA Science Mission Directorate Forums (Planetary and Heliophysics) to return to my undergraduate teaching roots.  I am charged with building a network on undergraduate teaching faculty and providing supporting structure for them (e.g., workshops, clearinghouses, etc.).  I also have kept my hands in NASA mission E/PO through Juno (launching to Jupiter in August) and SAGE (currently in competition for New Frontiers, it would land on the surface of Venus).  I get to work on selected programs, while being able to be home a little more often.  (Nicolas now has a 7 year old sister, Sophia.)  I couldn’t ask for more!

4. What lessons can you share with our readers?

1)     Ask yourself early and often:  What do I want?  My experience is that my answer to these questions changed over time.  If I had asked this question earlier, I might have found education earlier.  Though that said, I’m not sorry for the path I’ve taken, it’s given me a very rich tapestry of experiences to draw upon. 

2)     Make sure that you love what you do and how you do it.  As my mom has often said:  “This is not a dress rehearsal.”  I don’t get to do this over again.  I want to make sure that I love what I do and that I have the lifestyle that I want for myself.  At the end of the day, if I’m not happy, doesn’t matter what other people think. 

3)     Have a plan!  Some of us get to where we want to be by happenstance and luck.  However, I have discovered that it is far easier to make my own luck by having a plan, no matter how vague.  Sometimes the plan can be just a notion.  But I have found that my notions noodle around in the back of my head, it often emerges fully formed and ready to go when I need it.   I try to think of the plan in terms of the ‘big picture’ – since I depend on federal dollars for support.  It’s important that my projects meet the needs of the agencies that I’m likely to propose to.

4)     Does the plan make sense for me and my skills?  Even when I have a plan, I try to take a cold, hard look at my skill set and see if it makes sense.  I once thought about writing a history of the NASA sounding rocket program – LASP was heavily involved, the entire program captured my imagination.  However, I’m not a natural historian.  That attention to detail isn’t my strong suit.  In other words, I might love to be an artist, but since I can’t paint worth a darn….

5)     Don’t be afraid to change the plan!  What worked for me at 20, didn’t work for me at 30 – and that didn’t work for me at 40.  I expect that the plan I have now probably won’t work for me 10 years from now! 

Thank you, Emily!

Dr. Emily CoBabe-Ammann 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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