Women in Planetary Science: Meet Lucy McFadden
Lucy McFadden has recently moved from the University of Maryland to Goddard Space Flight Center where she is serving as Chief of University and Post-doctoral Programs. She was a member of the NEAR science team and a Co-Investigator and director of Education and Public Outreach for NASA’s Deep Impact and Dawn Discovery missions. She has studied the surface composition of asteroids, the Moon, Mars meteorites, the Galilean satellites of Jupiter, comets and asteroids in her career. Recently she has been working with a team of colleagues studying the shape and photometric properties of asteroid 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta, the targets of NASA’s Discovery mission called Dawn. She is also co-investigator of the Deep Impact Extended mission, (DIXI) which will fly past comet Hartley 2 in November 2010. She is founding and past director of the College Park Scholars Program, Science, Discovery & the Universe and a Co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the Solar System.
Her recent scientific publications have been led by both young scientists, including Jian Yang Li of U. Maryland, Christopher Crockett now at UCLA, Carolyn Crow and Shantanu Naidu, soon to be at UCLA, and Fabienne Bastien of Fisk-Vanderbilt University, as well as colleagues overseas, Dmitry Shestopalov and Larissa Golubeva. You can find their work by searching here.
For examples: see Carolyn Crow et al. “Our Solar System at Low Spectral Resolution: A Starting Point for Characterizing Colors of Other Systems” (DPS abstract) or Jian-Yang Li et al. “Photometric mapping of Asteroid (4) Vesta’s southern hemisphere with Hubble Space Telescope” (Icarus, In Press).
1. What first inspired you to study space science?
Curiosity got me. I was signing up for classes at a brand new, experimental college in Amherst, MA in 1970, (Hampshire College). It was a very exciting time in US history, the women’s movement, the end of the Viet Nam war and a burgeoning awareness of the fragility of our environment and planet.
When I arrived on campus, I had to make a list of 10 classes that I’d like to take. I eagerly wrote down, Political Justice, Film Workshop and Dimensions of Consciousness. I threw in Artificial Intelligence, the history of the development of the atomic bomb, and probably something related to biology or chemistry. I had a few slots left, and I came upon a class called Optical and Radio Astronomy. All I could do was conjure up an image of the radio in my family’s kitchen and I wondered how that related to astronomy, so I wrote that down as my ninth choice.
Guess what happened?
2. Where did you postdoc?
Wait, wait, I want to tell you about my delusions of studying as an undergraduate, my taking a semester off to work in the real world, about my decision to seriously pursue astronomy after attending a lecture at UC Berkeley on my day off from my waitressing job at Zims in San Francisco, which was really hard work.
I returned to Hampshire College, took a course on the Solar System from Bill Hartmann’s third edition of Moons and Planets (I still have it), and then I took an undergraduate internship at the Jet Propulsion Lab counting craters on Mercury during the Mariner 10 mission. An ex-astronaut and Hampshire College Professor, Brian O’Leary, was a co-Investigator of that mission. Brian O’Leary also introduced me to Tom McCord who encouraged me to apply to graduate school at MIT. I think I was recruited because I wasn’t afraid to pick up a screw driver and make an adjustment to the two-beam photometer. I also answered Brian O’Leary’s question, “Where do you put the aluminium foil, to shield rf interference?”
“Everywhere,” I said, before McCord did.
At MIT, I had a lot of courses to make up and some courses I took more than once. I left with a master’s degree because McCord went to U. Hawaii to automate the 88” telescope. He offered many of us jobs in Hawaii, and guess what happened?
OK, now to answer your question about my post-doc. I did a post-doc at Goddard Space Flight Center in the Earth Resources Branch. That lasted a little over a year. When I found an opportunity in solar system research, I took it, and that was at University of Maryland with Mike A’Hearn. He had a project to study comet Halley (we are now up to 1986) with the UV telescopes of the Astro mission scheduled to fly on the space shuttle. But guess what happened? This one may not be obvious. The Challenger blew up during launch in one of the space program’s a terrible tragedies.
3. How did you choose your current institution?
I am currently at Goddard Space Flight Center where I have been since March 15, 2010. I saw an advertisement in EOS for a position to lead Higher Education programs (including undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral programs) and to participate in the development of university collaborations with center scientists and engineers. The time was right, as the EPOXI mission will flyby comet Hartley 2 in six months, and we are planning the 9-month orbit of asteroid 4 Vesta with the Dawn spacecraft beginning in August 2011. I am continuing those scientific activities while leading the internship and post-doctoral programs at Goddard.
So here I am back at Goddard, where I started 27 years ago. I have the opportunity to facilitate exciting exploration in science and technology by opening opportunities for young scientists and engineers. I am thrilled to be facilitating the training of the next generation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals for the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at Goddard.
5. Do you have any advice for students and postdocs just starting their career in space science?
Of course I do, that’s part of my job! Thanks for asking.
1) Acquire as many technical skills as you can. Be sure you can do some computer coding, have a good background in math and physics or chemistry.
2) Develop relationships with as many scientists and engineers as you can. Attend professional meetings and attend poster sessions to both learn about current research and to meet people.
3) Understand the organization in which you are working, and ask about other organizations. As a graduate student or post-doc, you have certain roles and responsibilities. Be sure you understand them. Also ask about roles and responsibilities in other organizations where scientists work. Then you’ll be prepared to step into them when the time comes.
4) Have fun, you’ll do things you never expected.
Thanks so much for taking the time to do this Lucy (and getting it to me in such short order!). It was fascinating to hear how you arrived at your current position, and I appreciate your advice for early career scientists!