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Women in Planetary Science: Meet Amy Jurewicz

June 29, 2010

Amy Jurewicz was project scientist on the Genesis mission to capture samples of the solar wind.  She and I discussed her roles on Genesis and Stardust during a telephone interview in early 2010; she graciously agreed to answer the following questions about her work on NASA missions, career, and family by email.

Niebur:  Tell me about your graduate school experience.  Who was your advisor?  Do you stay in touch with any other students from that time?

Jurewicz:  My husband and I met in graduate school at RPI in upstate New York: we were Bruce Watson’s first and second PhD students, respectively. 

Niebur:  How did you first get involved in missions?

Jurewicz:  I had my first taste of NASA mission work when I was at the Johnson Space Center back in the early 1990’s. At JSC, my husband and I found work there together as Post-Doc’s / Lockheed contractors thanks to John H. Jones. We were both interested in missions. My husband’s first involvement in missions was the time he spent peeing into prototype shuttle toilets to aid in the space effort, but I decided that type of participation wasn’t for me. Fortuitously for me, the Plasma Motor Generator project was having some issues with their ion source disintegrating. I was able to point out to the physicists that “pure” nitrogen gas isn’t always just N2; rather, if they wanted their system to work, they needed to buy ultra-high purity N2. I was surprised and proud to get a NASA certificate for that contribution.

Niebur:  What else have you done to support NASA missions?
Jurewicz:  I didn’t have any direct involvement in other NASA missions until 1997 when I had the opportunity to return to space science and started working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Then, I was immersed in missions:  5 missions in 6 years. On Stardust, I was on the Aerogel Team. My primary tasks included (1) testing and measuring physical properties of the aerogel, (2) doing hypervelocity shots to test the effectiveness of aerogel capture for cells having different configurations, and (3) organizing and archiving the manufacturing data for future use by the planetary materials community after the Stardust return. On MER they used insulation made of aerogel, and I was the backup for Steve Jones. Luckily, Steve stayed healthy and, as back up, I wasn’t required to do much except help out in the Aerogel Lab periodically, but I did spend a few dirty days showing an engineer how to slice sheets of aerogel with a tile saw and then shape it to specifications using a Dremel.  I worked on Galex in JPL’s Microdevices Lab making calibration filters (that was fun, as I learned some semiconductor fabrication tricks). But, mostly, I spent the years at JPL on Genesis and later SCIM. For both of those missions, I was JPL’s project scientist.
Genesis was already in phase C/D in 1998 when Don Burnett asked me to work with him. Getting the appropriate background on the mission was like taking a drink out of a fire hose, but it was (and still is) a wonderful experience. I was in charge of either purchasing or fabricating the “sapphire”-based collector materials. Don and I worked together on just about every other science issue which came up: evaluating the other collector materials; doing cleaning studies (many of the semiconductor materials we purchased for use as collector materials had surfaces too dirty for use on the Genesis spacecraft in the “as received” condition); and designing novel, individual collectors for specific experiments. I had a great time, in spite of some 90 hour weeks. And, I’m still having a good time both supporting JSC’s Curators office, making standards for other PI’s, and working with Don Burnett on several analytical projects.
My other love was, and is, the mission Sample Collection for the Investigation of Mars (SCIM). I was part of SCIM even before it had a name. Albert Yen, Steve Jones and I kept giving presentations on this bizarre idea we had conceived, but which (at one point) we couldn’t even bargain away to the French. And none of the three of us wanted to be Mission PI, either, in part because of the overwhelming commitment and total devotion we knew was required. Eventually, Albert invited Laurie Leshin to be PI, and she named SCIM and turned it into a viable flight project. I continued supporting her as JPL’s project scientist, mainly working DUCE, the dust collector. I performed arc-jet tests on aerogel at the Ames arcjet facility and elsewhere with Steve Jones. I also had major input in both the DUCE design and implementation and other aspects of the mission. SCIM was great: directed, concise, and relatively cheap. I still think that the first iteration should have flown, but Phoenix won the SCOUT competition in 2003.

Niebur:  Outside of space science, what is important to you?  How do you balance that with your career goals?
Jurewicz:  During the time I was working hard on these flight projects at JPL, I was doing my best to balance work with the major events going on in my personal life. I guess that – like most professional women – I was trying to be Superwoman without a cape. My father (in his late 80’s) had both Alzheimer’s and cancer, and I was his conservator. He died in late 1999 (the day I had traveled up to Ames with a plan to pass my SCIM aerogel-testing duties to others temporarily). In addition to taking care of my father, my husband and I were trying to adopt a baby. In 2002 we were dealing with the “home study”, which was performed by a social worker who clearly thought I should be staying home with any child, and that it was unacceptable to have my husband be primary care-giver. When we went to talk with the head of the agency, that woman didn’t seem to care that much about me working. Instead, she told us pretty bluntly that she wouldn’t recommend us for adoption until my father died, at which time I would almost certainly be too old for them to allow us to adopt a baby.
In my usual way, I had planned on fighting that second decision, but my husband suddenly came down with trigeminal neuralgia. This is a debilitating condition which required brain surgery and thus was serious enough to keep him from working and to keep us as a family from disqualify for adoption anywhere. We started another battle: getting my husband well. Just before he went in for his first brain surgery (which was invasive and dangerous) my husband told me that he had contacted an agency which matched couples who wanted to be parents with altruistic women who wanted to help people by being surrogate mothers. If he lived, he wanted us to put in an application. In short, he did live and our resume was accepted by a wonderful woman and her family. She helped us to have a baby girl. I am forever grateful, and I’m still in touch with her and her family.
Of course, during this exciting time I was still doing the juggling act that all of us do as women in science. The day before my daughter was born, I was writing the science requirements for SCIM. The day I came back from my 4-week unpaid “maternity” leave, I worked with the SCIM proposal group piecing together proposals. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but by the time of the SCIM site-visit, I had started to have significant stomach problems. It turned out to be a pre-cancerous condition for which stress was both a known factor and the only factor applicable to me.
If SCIM had won the competition in 2003, I might still be at JPL, because my husband knew how much it meant to me. But after I became ill and still continued the in Super Woman mode, he told me that either I left science or he would leave because he loved me too much to see me die of cancer. We eventually compromised, and I’ve ended up as a half-time (i.e. only 30-40 hours a week!) researcher at ASU, focusing my time as de-facto project scientist by still working with Don Burnett on Genesis. The other “half time” I spend with my husband, daughter, three horses, two birds and a bunny. I enjoy being a mom, a wife, and the gorgeous Arizona country side, in which the tarantulas give the saying “Honey, will you please get the spider out of the bedroom?” a whole new meaning.
My one science regret with all this juggling is that sometimes I feel more like a tech than a project scientist. And, in reality, sometimes I’m both at the same time. Still, although being a “jack of all trades” doesn’t have much status attached, it is a great way to both do interesting things and to get lots of work done. 
Recent publications:

A. J. G. Jurewicz1 , S. M. Jones2 , M. Zolensky3, D. Frank3, L. Dupray4, and B. deHoog1, Stardust aerogel baseline data: recovery and use.  LPSC 2010.
Riesenfeld D.B., Burnett D.S., Becker R.H., Grimberg A.G., Heber V.S., Hohenberg C.M., Jurewicz A.J.G., Meshik A., Pepin R.O., Raines J.M., Schlutter D.J., Wieler R., Wiens R.C. Zurbuchen T.H. (2007) Elemental abundances of the bulk solar wind:  Analyses from Genesis and ACE.  Spa. Sci. Rev. 130-79-86, DOI 10.1007/s11214-007-9215-1.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. dan scott permalink
    January 12, 2012 10:40 pm

    Need to reconnect

    Amy and Steve,
    Give me a call at Baker Hughes in the Woodlands. I would like to get caught up with you both again. looks like a lot to talk about


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