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Louise Prockter: Be Tenacious

September 2, 2010

Louise Prockter at MESSENGER press conference, credit SF Gate Louise Prockter is Supervisor of the Planetary Exploration Group at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.  Prockter has worked on the imaging team for the Galileo Europa Mission (GEM), the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission, and the MErcury Surface, Space Environment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission to Mercury.  On MESSENGER, she has served as the Instrument Scientist for the Mercury Dual Imaging System, Co-Investigator, and Deputy Project Scientist.  The Q&A below is from an interview in December at APL, but first – a recent publication.

Prockter, Louise M., Carolyn M. Ernst, Brett W. Denevi, Clark R. Chapman, James W. Head, III, Caleb I. Fassett, William J. Merline, Sean C. Solomon, Thomas R. Watters, Robert G. Strom, Gabriele Cremonese, Simone Marchi, and Matteo Massironi, “Evidence for Young Volcanism on Mercury from the Third MESSENGER Flyby.” Science, Volume 329, Issue 5992, pp. 668-671 (2010).

During its first two flybys of Mercury, the MESSENGER spacecraft acquired images confirming that pervasive volcanism occurred early in the planet’s history. MESSENGER’s third Mercury flyby revealed a 290-kilometer-diameter peak-ring impact basin, among the youngest basins yet seen, having an inner floor filled with spectrally distinct smooth plains. These plains are sparsely cratered, postdate the formation of the basin, apparently formed from material that once flowed across the surface, and are therefore interpreted to be volcanic in origin. An irregular depression surrounded by a halo of bright deposits northeast of the basin marks a candidate explosive volcanic vent larger than any previously identified on Mercury. Volcanism on the planet thus spanned a considerable duration, perhaps extending well into the second half of solar system history.

Louise grew up in the U.K., had an early career in sales and marketing, and went back to school for environmental science/geophysics at 27.  After receiving her undergraduate degree from Lancaster University and her Master’s degree from Brown, she was looking for a Ph.D. project.

When I was trying to decide which direction I wanted to go in, that’s when the Galileo spacecraft had gone into orbit around Jupiter and was starting to send data from Ganymede.  I had colleagues, Bob Pappalardo and Geoff Collins, who were working on grooved terrain on Ganymede.  That’s where the exciting tectonics was.  Everyone was looking at the grooved terrain and trying to understand how it had formed.  There were all these images of dark terrain on Ganymede.  No one was looking at them because it was kind of boring.  It was just heavily cratered dark stuff.  And so, I went to Jim [Head] and said:  no one’s looking at these images, can I look at them?, and he was like, yeah, fine, off you go.  I started mapping out just one little area of dark terrain and got completely absorbed in it.  That turned into my first ever science paper.     

Although I wasn’t on the Galileo team, I was just one of the many grad students working on the mission and I was allowed to go to team meetings.  I got to meet a lot of people that I still work with today. Many of us met on the project as grad students and we all sort of came up together.  It was incredibly exciting.  I remember sitting in the team meetings being absolutely engrossed in every little detail of how things worked. Sometimes, we wouldn’t get data from Galileo because there had been a storm at the DSN station in Madrid, or one time, we think there were doves nesting in one of the antennas and we didn’t get the data.  But, Galileo with its antenna and the tape recorder problems was such a challenging mission. We really learned to be flexible on that mission.  We cut our teeth on having such limited resources – what can you do with these really limited resources?  We had to squeeze every last drop of science out of every little bit – literally – that came down.  And so, it was incredibly good training for me.  That was also where I learned that space exploration is hard and things go wrong. 

When did you start proposing [for research support]?

My first ever proposal was a PG&G [Planetary Geology and Geophysics] proposal to study Ganymede dark terrain.  That was a follow-on from my thesis.  But it took me a couple of years to break into PG&G, and even then, they gave me this little pittance.  My first real proposal for an Eros project that was nothing to do with my thesis was to DDAP [Discovery Data Analysis Program]….  The thing about Eros is it’s the shape of a potato.  It is really hard to do geology on something that’s the shape of a potato because handling the data is difficult – you can’t make a nice map of the surface and have it look anything like the original terrain because everything gets heavily distorted when it’s reprojected onto a sphere….  This is where the PDS is so important.  Even now, we’re currently developing a tool, partly using our PMDAP [Planetary Mission Data Analysis Program award] funds, which will allow people to do geology more easily on something that isn’t round.  One of the reasons I’m sure that I got funded and that people here at the lab got funded is because we had our own tools to analyze the data. 

Louise has worked on several NASA missions, both formally and informally.

You have to be flexible.  Had I not had the opportunity to work on the Galileo data, I probably wouldn’t have been attractive as a new hire here at APL.  I would have been like any other grad student with a planetary geology degree.  Having had the NEAR experience of working with an imager, I then started working on the MESSENGER camera –I started out as Scott [Murchie]’s deputy.  I officially became the Deputy Instrument Scientist–I can’t remember when–I think it was 2003, 2004.  And then, when [Scott] started working on the CRISM instrument on MRO, I took over as the instrument scientist on the camera.  I found out that I had to really get down in the weeds.  I learned a lot more about hardware, calibration, optical design, focal planes, you name it, than I had ever expected to.   

Louise and I talked at length about MESSENGER, including her role as Deputy Project Scientist.

I think one of the challenges from the start has been how, when you launch in 2004 and don’t go into orbit until 2011, you keep MESSENGER in people’s minds during that long cruise? …. [The team did science and issued press releases and products after each flyby, including a movie as the spacecraft flew by the Earth.]  One amazing and unexpected thing was when we found that Al Gore had used our Earth movie at the end of his “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary on global warming.  That’s our movie that we took with our Mercury spacecraft.  I’m so proud of that because it’s beautiful.  You can just watch the earth going around.  You can see the specular reflection on the oceans.  You know there’s water down there just by looking at our movie of the Earth as we flew by it.

How are things going to change when you start drinking from the fire hose when MESSENGER goes into orbit?

That’s a really good question.  First of all, I’m not planning on any vacation in that year [laughter]….  The data collection is going to be largely automated.  Hopefully, we will have ironed out any little wrinkles along the way so that we don’t have to do that on the fly because it’s going to be very hard.  If we miss something on the surface, we’re not going to see it again for six months.

MESSENGER had the PSP [Participating Scientist Program] in 2007.  Was that a major part of your staffing up or are people hiring post-docs?

Part of what we wanted to do on the PSP was hire people who could also help us with the flyby data and analysis….  We have over 50 scientists now.  Many of those do have grad students and post-docs who are starting to work on things.  You’ll see more and more abstracts where the scientist on the team is the second or third author, which is nice.  We’re starting to train those new, early career people to help out when we get into orbit.  I think there is going to be a huge amount of science to be done. 

What are you most looking forward to?

I’m so looking forward to seeing Caloris again at high resolution.  I’ll be looking at one basin, the Raditladi basin, which has these bizarre troughs inside it that are very unusual.  Even on flyby three, we saw another basin that has them, as well.  So, we’ve now got these two examples on Mercury.  Nothing else on Mercury has troughs quite like that – really bizarre.  We don’t have quite high enough resolution data to understand them yet.  So, to go back and see them again, and to have a global map taken at the same resolution, the same lighting; to be able to see all the compressional features or extensional features mapped out at once, just to get the global history, it’s going to be amazing.  Right now, we’ve got data from three different flybys, but there’s always an annoying gap somewhere.  So, I’m very excited about the orbital part of the mission.  It’s going to be great.

Given that you have had such exciting roles on some really major missions in our field, what kind of advice would you give students, undergraduates, graduates and then even the post-docs, if there were a couple of things that really made a difference to you in getting started?  People want to work on missions.  They don’t know how to get started.

Be tenacious.  If you know you want to do something, go find someone who will help you do it.  I’ve benefited from having some amazing mentors, almost all men, I have to say, just because of the nature of the field at least when I got in it.  I think, certainly for me—you know, I started out in a completely different career.  It was a leap of faith for me to do this.  I was lucky that I was able to take a chance on coming to a different country to do a Ph.D.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I might have hated every minute of it and had to go back home and do something else. 

Don’t be afraid to try.  Try to find a really good mentor.  And if the person you’re working with isn’t giving you what you want, then go find someone else who will.  Don’t be afraid to approach people and ask for help. I’m now the Group Supervisor of this group here, and I started as a post-doc. 

You don’t have to teach.  We need good policy people.  We need people at NASA Headquarters who can help us get more missions and help channel science and help with R&A.  There are so many jobs in this field, in Congress or whatever, where you just need a good solid science background.  And, yeah, to get on missions, it really helps to be somewhere where there’s someone doing mission work.  But luckily, with the Mars program expanding the way it did and with Discovery — I think Discovery has changed the landscape such that you can now go and be a student and also work on a mission.  That generally didn’t used to be the case.  And so, there are a lot of opportunities.  But, yeah, just don’t give up.  Go ask people.  Be annoying until you get what you want.  That’s my advice, because that’s what I did.  And look at me now – I have my dream job.

Thank you, Louise!

If you’d like to be featured as one of our 51 Women in Planetary Science, just send in an abstract of a recently published paper and we’ll send you five 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.

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