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Rachel Klima: Having your own funding opens a lot of doors

July 30, 2010

Rachel KlimaRachel Klima attended one of NASA’s first Early Career Workshops at LPSC many years ago. She participated in the discussions, and her interest made an impression on me. Years later, I heard that she was a team member on the Moon Mineralogy Mapper led by Carle Pieters, so I asked her to sit down with me at the 2009 LPSC and talk about the experience.

Were you a good student in high school?

Yes.  Well, I was a good student, maybe underachieved a little bit relative to what I could have been doing, because I could do well without getting too stressed out. 

That’s often a problem for gifted students.

I was frustrated because I could walk into an exam in math class and get 100 percent and all of the bonus questions right–I didn’t want to do all of the homework that was just repeating what I could already do.  I got in a lot of trouble for not doing homework.  Before taking calculus, math made me angry because when I’d ask why something was what it was, like in geometry, “Why is the area of a cone this?” they’d say, “Just because it is.  Just memorize it.”   Taking calculus was a huge turning point for me, because I thought, “Well, this explains everything.”  Since third grade I’d been asking why formulas were what they were, and no one would give me an answer. I wanted the real answer, not “Because the book says it is.”  And so, I loved calculus.  I was completely crazy about calculus.  And that was possibly a turning point in science as well, because I had been frustrated with both math and science, and then just completely fell back in love with them. (I loved science as a kid.)

When did you make the decision to go to grad school?

After undergrad, I took a job for three years doing environmental work….  After a while I decided that if I’m going to do science, I really want to do it.  I don’t want to settle for a job that’s available that may have a little bit of science in it.  I might as well just dive in and try to find a real place to do real science….  Taking time off to work turned out to be really good because I really, really wanted to be back in school.  I feel like there are a lot of people that come into grad school now who just think it’s what they are supposed to do.  In fact, I think there have been some posts on the blog about making sure you know why you’re in grad school and that you really want to be there.  It was something about “Why get a Ph.D.?”  I think sometimes people just think that’s what they’re supposed to do.  If you’re good in school and you’re bright, sometimes you just go through without stopping to think whether it even what you really want to do.  You don’t always take the time to pause….   I really was excited about it and really wanted to be in school again.

After completing her master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Klima worked for Carle Pieters as a doctoral student.

She invited me to come join their group for a Ph.D.  And so, I came out to Brown.  For me, coming back after being out of school, I don’t think I could have worked for someone with a different advising style.  She has a very good grasp of what students need, on a case-by-case basis.  She’s not just one type of advisor.  She doesn’t micromanage, but she knows–when someone needs a little push, she knows how to give a little push.  So, she’s a really good advisor in that respect, and she, speaking of respect, gives you a lot of respect. 

Sounds like you got just the right match for your mentoring style.

Right, absolutely.  So, that was really fortunate.  I was interested in more mission work and more diversity than just Mars, and I found out that she was on the Dawn science team.  I was following the drama around the Dawn mission (cancellations and reinstatements) and really, really wanted to get involved.  It turned out that the project that I ended up working on was very well tailored to Dawn, because I’ve worked with synthetic pyroxenes, a huge suite of a hundred of them, and that’s the most optically dominant mineral when you look at spectra of Vesta.  It was a very good match for the research that I was doing.  

So, I started out working on Dawn, and then the announcement came through about that there was an opportunity in India, and Carle was going to propose to that and then propose to the missions of opportunity through NASA.  It was so exciting to watch her go through it, because she–I mean, I don’t know how long she’d been talking to people at JPL about their instrument, but I think she knew there was this amazing spectrometer that she wanted to fly somewhere, somehow, and she just made it happen.  It was amazing.  I was so happy when everything fell into place.

Have you entered the world of looking to propose grants yet?

I applied to GSRP [the Graduate Student Research Program, now the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship] my first year, and then the next year Carle said, you know, “Your project, I think, is involved enough, and it fits into PG&G [NASA’s Planetary Geology and Geophysics Program] well enough that you could probably propose to that.  So, why don’t we just write a regular proposal?  Worst case, we at least get feedback on what the reviewers think of the project.”

To PG&G?  That’s gutsy.

I wrote a full proposal, as Co-I, because I couldn’t be PI.  But, I wrote the whole thing, and Carle was PI, I’m Co-I, and Darby Dyar as a collaborator.  Melissa Lane also collaborated with us because she’s doing TES measurements of the pyroxenes.  I went to the Early Career Workshop and took crazy notes about everything, wrote a proposal, and we got funded.  That’s why I have the funding for the post-doc at Brown….  Having your own funding opens a lot of doors.

I actually really love writing proposals….  I feel like it focuses your mind on specifically what your project needs to be, how you need to do it, and what you need to produce ultimately from it.  So, I print up my little timeline of what I said I was going to do for the grant, and look at it and say, okay, I’m on track with this and this and this, and it really keeps me focused, especially in a post-doc like this where I’m working for myself, essentially, because I’m 75 percent funded or something.  I mean, I would have been 100 percent funded, but they [PG&G] didn’t have quite enough money for what we wrote into it.   [PG&G partially funded the grant, as with many grants in that program in that era].

If an undergraduate or an early graduate student came and talked to you and said, “My goal is to work on missions, what should I be doing now to prepare?” what would you say?

I would say look at where those missions are being run out of, look at who’s on the teams and who you can work with. It seems like the quickest foot in the door is to work with someone who’s on the science team. Even if they don’t have funding for that specifically, if you can go and be a grad student to them, or a post-doc to them, they will involve you in it pretty quickly.

So, it’s all about mentoring.

Yes. You’ve got to find the right person for it. And once you do, and you show that you can contribute to it, then hopefully the rest of the science team appreciates it and wants to bring you on board in your own right.

Rachel is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.  She currently has a paper in review and a paper soon to be submitted which we will feature upon its release.  If we may feature your new first author paper or your work on a NASA mission, contact Women in Planetary Science and let us know!

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