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Women in Planetary Science: Meet Teresa Segura

May 14, 2010

Teresa SeguraTeresa Segura and I met a few years ago at LPSC, and she immediately impressed me as someone who knew what she wanted out of life and science and found a way to make it happen.  Teresa was one of the first planetary scientists in Northrop Grumman’s Civil Systems Business Development, Aerospace Systems sector, in Redondo Beach, Calif.  In October 2009, she was named Most Promising (advanced degree) at the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference.  I was delighted to sit down with her at LPSC this year and ask her a few questions about her career.  Her latest publication appears below, followed by a portion of our Q&A.

The Formation of Martian River Valleys by Impacts.  Owen B. Toon, Teresa Segura, and Kevin Zahnle.  Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Vol. 38: 303-322.

We explore the role of large impacts in creating the Martian valley networks. Recent dating shows that some large impact basins are contemporaneous with the valley networks. The mass deposited (and volatiles released) by impacts is large, and comparable with the mass from the Tharsis volcanic construct. Steam atmospheres formed after large impacts can produce more than 600 m of rainfall, followed by rainfall from water-vapor greenhouse atmospheres, and snowmelt. The erosion rates from impacts that created the currently visible craters are somewhat less than the erosion rates suggested for the Noachian (4.2 to 3.82 Gya). There are several possible explanations for this difference, and it is possible that erosion rates are overestimated because the burial of small craters by global debris layers from impacts has not been considered. Rainfall after the Noachian was low because the impact rate and CO2 pressure declined. We suggest tests of the hypothesis that impacts caused the river valleys.

1. Teresa, could you tell me a little bit about how you first got interested in space science?

Absolutely.  Thanks for asking me to do this for the program.  Halley’s Comet last flew past the Earth when I was in the fourth grade, and at the time my aunt and uncle were amateur astronomers.  They had an eight- or a ten-inch telescope in their backyard.  They invited my family over to go and check it out, and it was amazing.  I just was like, “I want to study this for a living.  How do I do this?”  I was nine years old, and I knew right away.

2.You went to Columbia for undergraduate, and then moved across the country to the University of Colorado, Boulder, for graduate school.  Why CU?

I spent my undergraduate years doing research on cataclysmic variables for my undergraduate advisor.  Although I loved astronomy, I still had my eye on the ball with Halley’s Comet and wanted to focus my study on objects that are within our own solar system.

I also developed a passion for environmental science.  At Columbia, I took environmental science and geology, I took a climate class.  And with global climate change coming more in the forefront in the late ’90s, I decided I wanted a graduate program that could combine terrestrial climate research but also planetary science.  I was very lucky to find that in CU, the University of Colorado.

My advisor, Brian Toon, is involved in both Earth and Planetary science.  He has projects about Mars, Venus, and he was on the SAGE III science team, so he has experience with Earth’s atmosphere and with aerosols, but also with planetary science.  I chose him specifically because he kind of reminded me of me in that he was trying a bunch of different things and had his finger in a lot of different pots.

The neat thing about CU’s Atmospheric Science program at the time was that if you wanted to study Planetary Atmospheres, you could do that within this terrestrial department.  And let’s face it – at the time, the terrestrial researchers had a lot more data. There weren’t many planetary missions coming back with data then.

3. What happened next?

Well, it was for family reasons, but I decided I wanted to go back home to the San Francisco Bay area, and so I applied for a NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program and Fellowship, GSRP, and worked with Chris McKay out at NASA Ames [during the latter part of graduate school].  My research for graduate work focused on early Mars climate, and in particular how large impact events–comets, asteroids–could cause rain to fall on Mars….At the end of that project, we also looked at how impacts could trigger a runaway greenhouse, and that’s what I worked on with Chris McKay.

4.  Did you then do a post-doc?

Life throws you curveballs.  I was at NASA Ames, very happy.  I applied for an NRC post-doc and got it.  I was fully funded.  But, my boyfriend at the time, who’s now my husband, was down at UCLA working on his Ph.D., and he still had two years to go.  We had done the whole long-distance thing, and we were quite frankly, tired of it.

So, actually, that’s what brought me to industry.  I met the rep from Northrop Grumman at an AGU conference, and he told me about  the NPOESS program.  It’s a large terrestrial polar orbiting satellite program, and they were hiring atmospheric scientists who understood radiative transfer.  Well, my whole dissertation was about radiative transfer and greenhouse atmospheres, so it was a really good fit, allowed me to be near Andy, my husband, and so I took the job.

A lot of times people ask me if I regret it at all, because it is a totally different environment.  There are some things I miss, absolutely.  I miss the people.  But, one thing I didn’t know that was a real surprise in industry is that there are a lot of Ph.D.s there.  Most of my group is Ph.D.s, mostly in the Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, and Plasma Physics fields.  Since working on NPOESS I’ve moved into a new area, focusing on planetary missions. I’m the only planetary scientist at this time, but we are hiring, because I need help.

5. What is your role at Northrop Grumman?

I am the lead for all of our planetary mission concept development. This is a really good fit for a planetary scientist because when you are building a planetary spacecraft, you need to understand the reason the concept is important to the PI, the reason for building the payload.  We benefit by having someone on the team who understands the science objectives and can translate it to the engineers.

I have a funny story.  We do a lot of concept studies that start with, “Well, this PI would like to do this, so how do we design his or her spacecraft?”  And whenever I come into the room with the Engineering team, they always ask, “Where are we going today?”  The answer could be Venus.  It could be a small body.  You never know.

But they really love it, and I try to get them excited about it, too.  They will ask “Well, why do we want to go to Venus?” And I will answer “Well, because we think it could be Earth in the future–it’s sort of future Earth, could be what it might evolve into,” and they really get excited about that.

6. What are some of the advantages of working for industry?

One big advantage, which is something that comes up all the time at our WIPS breakfast, is perhaps because the company is so big, they’ve had a long time considering what women in the field would want.  We have daycare onsite.  We have a cafeteria.  We have flexible hours.  We have every other Friday off.  We have a gym.  They get the work-life balance thing.

And then, people ask me, “Well, what’s the ratio of research to other work?”  I have to be honest.  You fit research in when you can.  I have tried to be at least co-author on a paper every year.  So, once a year, one paper a year.  So, it’s not great, but … it’s enough that I’m really happy, and Northrop Grumman supports this.  They want you to keep those planetary science and research skills sharpened because it makes you a better asset to your proposal team and your mission team.  So, that’s why it provides an alternate career path for planetary scientists.

Thanks, Teresa!  This was a fascinating insight into the world of an industry scientist, and I really appreciate it!

If you’d like to be featured as one of our 51 Women in Planetary Science, send in an abstract of a recently published paper and we’ll send you some questions. If you’re a student, send in a question and we’ll forward it to successful women scientists who can answer your questions about career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success.

This feature will run every Tuesday and Friday, for as long as we have submissions.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle Thompson permalink
    July 21, 2012 12:08 pm

    Is it possible for me to get in touch with Teresa? I am creating a series of academic career seminars for graduate students in my department, and we are focusing on non-traditional career paths. Teresa would be a perfect addition! Let me know. Thanks!

    • August 8, 2012 1:12 pm

      Hi Michelle,
      Sorry for the delay in responding to you, you may have already figured this out a way to contact Teresa, but her interviewer, Susan Niebur is no longer with us. Hopefully you can find her contact information at her work (listed above).


  2. May 15, 2010 3:54 pm

    Hi! It was interesting to read about some of the decisions you mad on your path to the industry side of things. thanks for sharing!

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