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Emily Lakdawalla: “It is NOT failure to leave academia.”

August 26, 2010

Emily Lakdawalla

If you read about planetary science on the internet, you probably already know Emily Lakdawalla, Science and Technology Coordinator/Blogger at The Planetary Society.  But did you know that she was once a graduate student in geology at Brown?  That she has served as deputy project manager for Red Rover Goes to Mars, an E/PO project for MER?  That she writes and voices Planetary Radio, a weekly public radio show on 120 stations throughout North America?  I didn’t, and that’s why I was thrilled when she contacted me about writing a piece for our site.  That piece will come later this Fall, but first, let’s meet Emily Lakdawalla, as part of our series on 51 women in planetary science.

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

I’ve been interested in space since I was a kid, but I was also interested in all sorts of other fields, from engineering to paleontology.  I discovered geology as an undergraduate at Amherst College; I loved how creative a science geology is, where you have to piece together the history of a landscape from very limited data, and where you have to use observations made on the surface to imagine what’s going on deep inside it.  Because of the amount of imagination and storytelling required, geology seemed to attract interesting people, sucking in students who were originally majoring in history or English or the visual arts.  And I had great teachers, including a female role model, Tekla Harms, who became my advisor.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to grad school in geology, though, so I decided to take a break from academia and find a “real job” after graduating from college.  So I went to teach general science to fifth grade students in a private school north of Chicago.  At that school, they did a “Space Simulation” project every year, a big cross-disciplinary project.  This was in 1997, when Galileo was returning amazing images, and those must have been on my mind when I guided the kids to pretend they were conducting a mission to Jupiter’s moons.  It was in the middle of that project that it suddenly occurred to me to wonder whether anybody studied the geology of places like Io and Europa.  I asked Tekla, and she said, yes, they did; she helped me locate planetary geology programs, and I eventually attended Brown, working with Jim Head.  So I’ve come to space science from the perspective of a boots-on-the-ground structural geologist, and I love to imagine the landscapes across all the solid worlds of the solar system.

 2. What was your research focus?

I did structural geology and geophysics, working with the SAR images and topographic data returned by the recently-ended Magellan mission.  Geographic Information Systems were just beginning to be used in the space sciences, and I put a lot of work into building a GIS for a small region of Venus, examining how the topographic data and mapped geologic units related to each other.  The geology of Venus is so spectacular, with volcanoes at every scale, and all kinds of folding and faulting laid bare to the radar eyes of Magellan.  But I also did projects working with data from Clementine’s camera and Mars Global Surveyor’s laser altimeter; the latter project led to my one and only peer-reviewed publication, about a little cone-shaped mountain on Mars that looks just like stratovolcanoes like Mount Fuji both to cameras and, it turns out, in its symmetrical topography as well.

 3. What led you to leave bench science for a career in science media?

There were three reasons that I left, two negative, one positive.  On the negative side, I just lacked confidence in my ability to be a really successful academic.  I knew that I was smart enough, but not sure that I was tough enough or driven enough to push through the long hours, to fight for grant funding, to fight for tenure, to shoulder a teaching load and do it well (because I refuse to put in poor work) and then keep working long days to do really quality research — and still enjoy a happy marriage and be a good mother to (future) children.  And I also hated the prospect of specializing in one tiny little subfield of space science, knowing that for all the work I would put in to my research on Venus tectonics, only a few people (if any) would actually read those papers I put so much effort into; while every extra hour taken for teaching and research would be time taken away from family.

But I had discovered something exciting at Brown.  Brown hosts a Regional Planetary Image Facility.  That means that inside the planetary geosciences building there are thousands and thousands of enormous glorious photographic prints from all the planets — case after case of Magellan radar images, Lunar Orbiter Moon images, Viking Mars images, and more.  The latest images from Galileo were printed out on enormous two-meter sheets and strewn across tables in the labs.  Case after case of CDs held more digital data, and I was learning how to process it to make gray landscapes like the Moon’s spring into previously unseen colors.  I never knew before just how much data was there, how much more than the few images you ever see on TV or in magazines.  There are so many views of these alien landscapes that nobody gets to see, even though they are “owned” by the taxpayers and freely available to the public.  I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew that what I really wanted to do was to help more people see all of these amazing images.

So I quit after earning a Master’s degree and followed my husband out to Los Angeles; a year later, while interviewing for a job at a local science museum, a staff member there showed me the job listing for the Planetary Society.  I’ve been there since 2001.

4. Is your audience at The Planetary Society blog more scientists or the general public? What is the value of social media for scientists?

Both.  I see my audience as what I call the “interested public.”  People who seek out more than what they can learn from general media.  That includes astronomy and space enthusiasts.  But it also includes a lot of scientists, because scientists (except for the superhuman ones) really do specialize in small subfields, so can’t keep track of what’s going on in other areas.  I know that Mars geologists like to read my blog for the latest from Saturn’s moons, for example, and the outer planets folks like seeing the latest from Mercury and the Moon.  I don’t pretend to cover everything, especially now that I’m working only part-time, but I try to cover as many different topics and places as I can, to give both the general public and the academics some news from places they wouldn’t otherwise hear from, and to cover that news in greater depth than you get at websites that just regurgitate press releases.  Of course I also try to do some writing that’s accessible to just about everyone, featuring at least one post per week that is just a “pretty picture.”

I also try to get some scientists to write about their own work on my blog.  I think it’s a valuable exercise for anybody to try to explain the work they’re doing to an audience that is outside of their subfield, whether it’s the public or a group of scientists who studies a different part of the solar system.  It forces you to step back and consider the big picture, to crystallize and clarify your ideas, and maybe even make connections to other subfields that can help in your own work.

5. What advice would you offer young scientists?

There are a lot of people offering advice to young people who stay the course in academia.  So I’ll speak to those people who begin graduate study but decide to finish with a Master’s degree, or go work in private industry after earning a doctorate.  My number one message to those people is that it is NOT failure to leave academia.  Look around you, students; you have far more classmates than there will ever be grant funding for.  Some people leave because they can’t hack it or can’t get a job, but lots of people leave because they just decide that research isn’t for them.  I hate being described as someone who “leaked out of the pipeline” just because I chose not to continue doctoral study.  I am not a “drip,” and neither is anyone else who successfully completes an advanced degree and then successfully finds a job that they enjoy, where they can apply their critical thinking skills and research acumen to solving other kinds of problems.  Your professors can’t see that as success because most of them have never, ever been out of school, so most of them will only offer advice for how you can stay.  But you can get that degree and then apply it in lots of other ways than just doing more research, just as I am applying my Master’s degree toward educating the world about what’s going on out there in the solar system.  In fact, I would argue that I am accomplishing far more to advance the human pursuit of knowledge about our solar system as a writer for the public (and a cheerleader for space exploration funding) than I ever would have as a middling-quality Venus geophysicist.  For those of you who are not sure you want to stay in academia, contact the career office at your school to get in touch with alumni who have graduated from the same program as you, or who studied entirely different fields but live in your hometown.  Make connections and explore other possibilities.  You may decide you want to stay in academia, but you should make sure that you aren’t staying just because it’s the default option.

My other piece of advice is to cultivate your ability to write, to express yourself with brevity and clarity.  Writing is important not only for explaining your research, but also for applying for grants and jobs.  People who write well, with an engaging voice and correct spelling and grammar, make a positive first impression, giving them a leg up over their competition. My advisor at Brown made all his students submit abstracts to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.  The struggle to write those abstracts helped us identify holes in our knowledge or in the completeness of our work; presenting our work in posters or talks gave us poise and confidence in intimidating situations.  So keep a journal, or start a blog.  Just write.

Recent publications:

Lakdawalla, Emily.  “Spacecraft Imaging for Amateurs,” Sky and Telescope, January 2010.

Emily also sent along two blog articles that show the two endpoints of her blog writing — one’s a “pretty picture” post, the other an explanation of an academic paper.  Both are valuable to the community that reads her work at The Planetary Society blog.

Thank you, Emily!

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 often as we have submissions.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2011 8:11 pm

    Amazing things here. I’m very satisfied to peer your post. Thanks a lot and I’m looking forward to touch you. Will you please drop me a e-mail?

  2. August 31, 2011 7:53 pm

    Thankyou! I was halfway through a PhD when I quit and did teaching instead, then going on to a MEd. I sometimes run across the attitude that I’m a failed scientist or ‘not a real scientist’ and in that sense I’m not, but I’m an excellent science teacher. If it wasn’t for me and people like me, there wouldn’t be more kids aiming for their PhDs. We need to keep emphasising to people interested in science that there are lots of other interesting and important things they can do to!

  3. August 31, 2011 4:44 pm

    I started out as a writer with a BA in journalism and only a few years ago, after being active in the environmental movement, decided I want to write about planetary science. I am currently in a Masters program in astronomy, which I love. Do you have any advice as to opportunities available in science media and where to look for such opportunities? Are most of them freelance, or are staff positions available as well? And are freelance opportunities available while we are still in school obtaining the Masters? Science communication is something this country is seriously lacking, and it is why political rhetoric often gets in the way of real science discussion, especially regarding subjects such as global climate change. I get that many science writers originally started in the academic world, but I think there is also benefit from having career writers decide to take up science writing as a specialty.

  4. sushma Naithani permalink
    June 22, 2011 12:15 am

    This is my first time here. I am biologist but enjoy reading about space science. I agree that science writing for benefit of general audience is as important as doing the top-notch research.

  5. Chris Cooper permalink
    February 17, 2011 12:06 am

    I think this interview presents excellent advice to graduate students. Be aware that there are some fantastic, rewarding, engaging, meaningful career paths outside of academia. I too was turned off by what I perceived as the grind of academia–first post docs, then tenure; with having to fight for funding and limited spots on missions to be a “first tier” planetary geologist. I too wanted to have children without the uncertainty of a fledgling academic career. I struggled with the decision for quite a while (slowing down my thesis writing for sure) along with my perceptions of letting my advisor down. But from the security of seven years in a rewarding career as an industry scientist, I can whole-heartedly say I’m happy with my choice. I encourage students to explore their options and broach alternate possibilities — it turns out your advisors may be a lot more understanding than you might think!

    Finally, I’m glad to have been a student at Briwn with Emily.

    Thanks again for offering up a great interview!

  6. Phoebe A. Cohen permalink
    August 27, 2010 3:42 pm

    What a wonderful interview! As a recently minted PhD now doing education and outreach work (as well as some research) I had to deal with well-meaning but confused colleagues who thought I had ended up at my current position as a ‘last resort’ instead of by choice. I am not a ‘drip’! I also very much agree that writing and communication skills are key regardless of the path one ends up taking.

    • August 29, 2010 10:30 pm

      I agree! Science Ph.D.s do all kinds of good work. I think perhaps those that have taken other paths have not been as visible to academia in the past, and have faded from thought accordingly. I hope that will change in our career “lifetimes” ….

  7. Elizabeth Humbert permalink
    August 27, 2010 2:40 pm

    Thanks for the validation, Susan and Emily. What a fantastic article that makes me value my MS in geology more, and my offbeat career track (as well as time off for motherhood) all the more.

    • August 30, 2010 10:26 am

      Good. While we make these decisions that are right for us, it’s always nice to learn about what others do, isn’t it?

      What are you doing now, Elizabeth?

  8. August 26, 2010 12:53 pm

    I may have missed seeing her name listed, but I hope you have or will be including Dr. Sara Seager in your listing of women in planetary science. In my book, Dr. Seager is way up there at the top and should be listed here. Dr. Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT. Please, if you have not already, make contact with Dr. Seager for this excellent presentation on women in the planetary sciences.

    • August 26, 2010 5:57 pm

      Absolutely! Actually, I’ve done an interview with Sara for my upcoming book on NASA Discovery missions, and excerpted it for this blog — as soon as I get her approval, it will be posted! Thank you for visiting and commenting!

    • August 29, 2010 10:23 pm

      Dr. Seager has approved her interview; it will be posted here the week of September 13th.

      Thanks for your interest!

      • August 30, 2010 4:22 am

        Thank you for the update. I am delighted Dr. Seager will be interviewed here and I look forward to reading it.


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