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Amy Barr on Soft Money, Proposals, and Caffeine

July 23, 2010

Amy Barr made quite an impact at the 2010 LPSC with her talk, “Origin of the Ganymede/Callisto Dichotomy by Impacts During An Outer Solar System Late Heavy Bombardment,” and the paper of the same name, published in Nature Geoscience the day of her talk.  Barr, a Senior Research Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, agreed to talk to us about her recent paper, career path, job hunting, and good advice for students.  But first, the abstract of her most recent paper:

Barr, Amy C., and Robin M. Canup, “Origin of the Ganymede/Callisto Dichotomy by Impacts During An Outer Solar System Late Heavy Bombardment” Nature Geoscience 3, 164 – 167 (2010)

Jupiter’s large moons Ganymede and Callisto are similar in size and composition. However, Ganymede has a tectonically evolved surface and a large rock/metal core, whereas Callisto’s surface shows no sign of resurfacing and the separation of ice and rock in its interior seems incomplete. These differences have been difficult to explain. Here we present geophysical models of impact-induced core formation to show that the Ganymede–Callisto dichotomy can be explained through differences in the energy received during a brief period of frequent planetary impacts about 700 million years after planet formation, termed the late heavy bombardment. We propose that during the late heavy bombardment, impacts would have been sufficiently energetic on Ganymede to lead to a complete separation of rock and ice, but not on Callisto. In our model, a dichotomy between Ganymede and Callisto that is consistent with observations is created if the planetesimal disk that supplied the cometary impactors during the late heavy bombardment is about 5–30 times the mass of the Earth. Our findings are consistent with estimates of a disk about 20 times the mass of the Earth as used in dynamical models that recreate the present-day architecture of the outer solar system and the lunar late heavy bombardment.

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

I became interested in space science at about the age of 11 or 12 when I decided that I wanted to become an astronaut.  By the time I reached high school, I realized that the science side of things interested me more.  Then, I was lucky enough to attend Caltech as an undergraduate, which gave me a very strong foundation for future research.

2. Who encouraged you along the way?

Looking back, there were a few key moments where people reached out a hand to pull me up.  The first was in 1990 or 1991, when I wrote a letter to Jill Tarter at the SETI Institute asking if there was a way that kids like me could become involved in research there.  She put me to work testing elementary- and middle-school curriculum that SETI was developing as part of their E/PO activities.

Throughout my middle- and high-school years, I spent 1-2 afternoons a week at SETI, working with a professor from Evergreen State named Dave Milne.  He gave me all sorts of fantastically weird assignments.  At one point I was growing plants in fish aquaria on the roof of our house.   Each aquarium was wrapped in a different number of layers of cheesecloth to simulate low-light growth conditions appropriate for other planets.  In SETI’s old space at 2035 Landings Drive, I had a desk in a huge office shared with, among other folks, Seth Shostak.  Seth used to play really terrible pranks on me.  One day he told me, “Sadly, Dave isn’t here to meet with you — he has been eaten from the waist down by lab rats.”  (Dave was just out getting coffee.)  What a way to spend one’s teen years!  I was so incredibly lucky.

The second key moment was in my freshman year at Caltech, when I was looking for an advisor for a summer undergraduate research fellowship (SURF).  My housemates David Tytell and Matt Tiscareno (now a planetary scientist at Cornell) suggested that I approach David Stevenson.  Dave sent me to the library to read about Ganymede & Callisto, and steered me toward a project related to the Ganymede/Callisto dichotomy.  I spent the entire summer sitting in my dorm room writing code to evaluate heat transfer by solid-state convection in the interior of a large icy satellite.  By the end of the 10 week project, I was completely hooked on theoretical planetary geophysics.  One thing I really like about our Nature Geoscience paper is that it gives me a feeling of closure on my freshman SURF project.  What a relief!

My Ph.D. thesis advisor Bob Pappalardo taught me how to function as a real scientist.  Bob patiently taught me how to write successful grant proposals, give good conference talks, and build a political network in the field.  I am so grateful to Bob for the thousands of hours he spent editing my work and forcing me to shake hands with Big Scary Important People (Bill McKinnon) at conferences.  Bob taught me how to survive on soft money. Without the skills that Bob taught me, I would never have survived in the field beyond my PhD.  

The final key moment was when I made the decision to come to SwRI, which I’ll discuss in the next response.

3. Why did you choose to work at SwRI?  What makes your position different from an academic position? 

I came to SwRI in 2006 because I was ready for a fresh challenge.  There weren’t any icy satellite geophysics people here.  In that respect, I was on my own.  And the folks who seemed excited about my work me were all planet-formation people, which was totally baffling to me at the time.

When I came to interview to be a postdoc with Robin Canup, we had four days to write a grant proposal so that there would be enough money to support my new position.  The first question she asked me was, “So… What is it that you do exactly?”  It was like we were standing on opposite sides of a canyon waving at each other, and had four days to build a bridge across.  We ended up writing a proposal task that turned into the paper we published in Icarus  in 2008 about the accretion of Callisto.   (We look back at this now and laugh, but at the time it was pretty scary!)

At SwRI, we are 100% soft money.  We don’t teach.  Most people here do not mentor graduate students.  Some people have postdocs.  It is quite different from an academic environment where teaching and mentoring and personal preference may play a role in shaping your research agenda. Here, your research agenda is shaped by which of your grants get funded. 

Working on soft money is, for me, an exhilarating experience, but, of course, a soft money job is not for everyone. 

To survive on soft money, you must be quick to respond to new results and new scientific priorities at NASA and NSF.  You must be able to build collaborations with folks in other sub-disciplines.  You must be willing to say “yes” more often than “no.”  You must be organized and good at time management.  It helps if you are also a Type-A person who drinks a lot of caffeine.

4. What do you enjoy most about your job?

Our building is a very special place.  There’s a kind of intellectual energy that crackles in the air. Creative stress radiates from the walls.  You can feel it pushing on you when you’re sitting at your desk.  My husband, a physicist, says that he feels it every time he comes to visit the office.

5. What advice would you give an undergraduate or graduate student in planetary science?

No matter what your position, it’s important to behave as though you are one step above where you really are.  For example, if you are an undergraduate, you should be doing research and publishing papers with your advisor as though you were in grad school. As a graduate student, you should function as a post-doc by taking control of your research direction and by writing fellowship and grant applications, etc.  Time and time again, I have seen that people who follow this model rise to the top of the field. 

6.  What advice do you have for job hunting?

In my experience it takes about 18 months to get a job after your Ph.D.  The last year to year and a half of the Ph.D. is the time to be job hunting.  Six months before your defense is too late!  Also, you will need multiple offers to guarantee that one of them will work out.  This is where political connections, networking, and shaking hands with Big Scary Important People at conferences are key. 

A lot of people ask me how I got my first post-doc job with Bill McKinnon at Washington University in St. Louis.  Bill was not known for hiring postdocs, and I wasn’t sure he would be willing to hire me.  I approached Bill about 1 year before I was ready to defend, and asked him if I could work with him. 

He said yes, but that it would be great if we could write a grant to make the position really financially secure.  Bill and I ended up writing a NASA Outer Planets Research grant to extend my thesis work and move it in new directions.  We won the grant and I ended up working with the exact person I wanted to work with, doing exactly what I wanted to do.  Also, it helped focus my research efforts — when I showed up on Day 1, I knew exactly where to get started.

Admittedly, this may not work for everyone, and it’s kind of a gutsy thing to do.   If you are in grad school and you dream of working with a Big Scary Important Person in the field, this is an approach you might try.

Thanks, Amy!   

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, as long as we have submissions.

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