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Amy Simon Miller: You have to advocate for yourself

July 27, 2010

Amy Simon-MillerDr. Amy Simon Miller is the Chief of the Planetary Systems Laboratory, Solar System Exploration Division (693.0) at Goddard Space Flight Center.  As such, she is a scientist and a manager of other scientists who study the planets.  This is similar to being a department chair at a university.  Her latest publication is:

Simon-Miller, A & P. Gierasch 2010. On the Long-Term Variability of Jupiter’s Winds and Brightness as Observed from Hubble.  Icarus, in press.

Amy, tell me a little bit about how you first became interested in space science.

Well, it’s interesting.  As a kid, I was always interested in what I thought were the standard kid things.  I liked rocks; I liked dinosaurs, archeology, planets, space.  I had a wide range of those sorts of interests.  Only recently did I find out that’s actually not that common, particularly for girls.  I always thought all little kids like that stuff – apparently not.  But I was always interested in those areas.  Even at a young age, I wanted to go into something science-related.  And so, I was kind of torn between being a veterinarian, studying archeology or space and all these interesting things.  And then, Sally Ride came along and was the first American woman astronaut on the shuttle, and that was it.  If she could be the first American woman in space, I was going to be the first woman on Mars.

Did that influence your choice of where to go to college?

It did, actually.  When I looked at where I was going to go to college, I only looked at places that had astronomy, space science sorts of departments.  I actually initially went to the Air Force Academy to do space operations.  I was an academic recruit…. But I was really not happy there, and I actually ended up switching to my second choice college, which was Florida Tech, right next to the Kennedy Space Center.

For graduate school, you went to New Mexico State to work with Reta Beebe.  When did you begin doing research?

Immediately.  As a matter of fact, that was part of the incentive.  Their package to entice me to go there versus somewhere else was that I could work the summer between undergraduate and graduate school.  So, I went straight to work with her.  That was 1993, and it turns out it was shortly after Shoemaker-Levy 9 was discovered.  I had wanted to work on Mars, initially. Reta immediately dragged me out to Tucson for a pre-impact meeting where they discussed how this comet was coming back around and going to hit Jupiter the next summer.  She had me working on the Hubble Wide field Planetary Camera I data, which was really distorted by the optics problem as part of this pre-impact study.  After that, I never went back.  It was always Jupiter and the Giant Planets.

When it came time for you to leave to finish up, were you looking at post-docs?

We had been working on the Galileo mission at that point, and I was really involved with the crowd at Cornell quite a bit, particularly Dr. Peter Gierasch who is a leader in planetary atmosphere studies.  And so, I ended up helping write a grant to NASA to fund my post-doc position at Cornell.

So now you’ve been at several universities and you come to a NASA Center.  How is it different doing research at a NASA Center as opposed to doing research at a university?

The interesting thing is that [working at a NASA Center] has really evolved over the last 10 years, I would say.  The environment now is very different than when I joined.  Today, they make sure that new people come in and have what they call a buddy who shows them how to navigate the system.  I’m a supervisor now, so people come to me when they have their questions, too.  But also, all my newest hires, we have career mentors.  So, we try to make sure that people have as much support as they can, and we also have groups for the new hires.  They’re automatically part of this forum, so that they get a little more navigation and support.  It’s not so much sink or swim, especially with full cost accounting in place where they had to write their own grants to fund their research.  You can’t spend all your time trying to figure out how to do your timecard.  You have more pressing things to do, so in many ways Centers are more similar to a soft-money institution.

What’s the real benefit to going to a NASA Center as opposed to a soft money institution?

The benefit as I see it is that you have more of a direct line into the missions.  If you went to a university, you generally only have your summertime to do research and it’s harder to stay day to day involved in a mission.  Soft money institutions–it depends which one.  Some of them are very involved in missions now, too.  I think the lines have gotten a lot blurrier.

Clearly, you’ve accomplished a lot at a young age.

Yes, but you have to look for those opportunities and you have to advocate for yourself.  Way too many people sit back assuming our world is a meritocracy, and it is not.  If you’re not your own salesperson–and that’s something that Reta [Beebe] really instilled–nobody else is going to necessarily think of you.  You need to make sure you’re putting yourself out there.  —If you get asked to serve on a committee, think about if you have the time, but if you have the time, do it, and do it 100 percent.  Don’t just be a name on the committee, because then, other people who are on the committee see you, they’re know you’re hard working, they know what you stand for and it makes a huge difference.

Does it matter whether it’s a NASA working group or whether it’s a Decadal Survey opportunity?  I know you’re the vice-chair currently for the Planetary Science Decadal Survey.  Does it matter in terms of visibility?

I don’t think so.  My initial committee services were small, and in some cases, outside of planetary, for example, the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy for the AAS [American Astronomical Society].  That’s outside of planetary, but I already knew some astronomers.  Now I know quite a few more and they know me.  So, some of the service groups can actually be very valuable for being known across the field or across different fields, as well.  The DPS [American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Science] Committee – that’s across our entire field.  So, things like that actually do make a difference, and you’ll find that over time you’ll be invited to join higher profile committees, as well.

Amy, thank you very much for speaking with us!

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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