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Rhonda Stroud: Be visible and be involved

September 17, 2010

Rhonda with lunar meteoriteRhonda Stroud was the first graduate student I met when I visited the campus of Washington University in St. Louis as a curious undergrad.  She held the prestigious Olin Fellowship, for which I was a finalist, and we were immediately introduced.  I remember having dinner with her and her advisor, the three of us physicists and physicists-to-be in a roomful of fellowship holders in social work, business, law, anthropology, literature, and the like.  I was happy that I wasn’t the only woman in science there — and I’m not sure she realizes it, but I learned a lot from her during the brief year or two we were both there in graduate school.  For instance, Rhonda encouraged the younger female students to apply for the Zonta fellowship, and she held weekly lunches for the women in physics.  That first year, I only went once, to my regret, thinking “I don’t need this.  I don’t need any special help just because I’m a woman.  I was the best in my class in undergrad, and you bet I can do it here as well.”   Yeah.  Fast forward a few years, and bam!  Here I am at Women in Planetary Science, talking to you all because I’ve learned that there are some things that are just a little harder if you happen to be the one wearing skinny jeans and flats. 

Rhonda’s latest paper:  

Bradley T. De Gregorio, Rhonda M. Stroud, Larry R. Nittler, Conel M.O’D. Alexander, A.L. David Kilcoyne, Thomas J. Zega. Isotopic anomalies in organic nanoglobules from Comet 81P/Wild 2: Comparison to Murchison nanoglobules and isotopic anomalies induced in terrestrial organics by electron irradiation. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 74 (2010) 4454–4470.

1. What first inspired you to study space science?

I’ve been interested in math and science since at least kindergarten, but I didn’t get directly involved in space science research until well after graduate school. As a teenager, I wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic, an astronaut or a physicist. Somewhere I read, maybe in a quote from Sally Ride, that at the time the odds of becoming an astronaut were higher for mission specialists, who first obtained graduate training in physical science or engineering. My thought heading to college was to study condensed matter physics, and maybe eventually become an astronaut. What I do now—electron microscopy of dust particles from stars and comets– allows me to combine all three of those original interests. I’m not working for National Geographic, but I collect digital images and I travel to conferences all over the world. I’m not an astronaut, but I get to glimpse inside supernovae by analyzing nanoparticles that formed there. I am a research physicist, and I get to learn new things every day about the cosmic recycling process that forms new stars out of the ashes of old ones. How cool is that?

The path to actually doing research on meteorites and cosmic dust was not so direct, or always so easy. I had a huge head start compared to a lot of people in that both my parents have degrees in physics, I had a lot of support from teachers early on, and in my middle school / high school there were other girls also taking advanced math and physics. Basically I didn’t know that women “didn’t do physics” until I had already chosen to be a physicist. Even so, I nearly dropped out of physics more than once. When I got to college, the numbers started to speak for themselves— I had no female math or science professors at all. There were only two other women in my physics classes. There was rarely overt discrimination, but I could see that some of the professors treated my boyfriend- now husband—differently that they did me. We could compare grades on homework and tests, and see that sometimes he’d get one more point than I did for the exact same solution to a problem, but never the other way around. I asked a TA about it once, and he actually admitted that they tried to determine who worked together and split the points appropriately. The assumption was that my boyfriend was letting me copy his work. This was a wake-up call for me. I figured previously that I’d always be evaluated on my own merits, and this showed me that discrimination still existed in subtle unintended ways. I learned an important survival skill in knowing to identify the systematic bias, so that I could move beyond it and not internalize it. Oddly enough, the only reason I ever raised the grade issue with the TA is that I had gone to TA offices looking for a female grad student who posted a flier about a lunch gathering for women in physics.

2. In graduate school, you brought a group of students together regularly for lunch, from across the department. How did this benefit participants?

When I got to graduate school, one of the first things I did was hang a flier to organize a lunch gathering for women in physics. There was no specific agenda other than to get the women in the department together for lunch. I wanted simply to make sure that we each had a chance to be in a room of women physicists, rather than be the woman in a room of physicists. I also wanted there to be physical sign in the department hallways for women undergraduates to see, as proof that women do physics beyond the undergraduate level. I hope this seems entirely unnecessary on college campuses today, but in the early ‘90’s this was radical enough that one faculty member actually complained about it and one male graduate student actually worried out loud that we might be talking about him during the lunch. In reality we talked about all sorts of things over lunch, and that one male graduate student never came up. Perhaps most importantly the lunches allowed us to share strategies for getting our advisors to send us to meetings, and for lining up the best thesis committees.

3. What are the benefits of working for a national lab?

As a graduate student, I got to spend a couple of weeks working at two different national labs, Oak Ridge and Ames Lab in Iowa. It seemed to me that the scientists at these labs had the best jobs. At academic jobs, the professors are busy with grant proposals, teaching and committee work , and rarely get to do much hands on research themselves. In contrast, the scientists at the national labs get to keep doing bench level science for most of their career, if they so choose. Since I really enjoy working in the lab, this seemed like a good choice for me. After getting my Ph.D., I took a postdoc at the Naval Research Lab (NRL) in Washington, DC. After two years, I was converted to staff, and I’ve been at NRL ever since. There are certainly trade-offs. Not having a tenure clock can really ease the pressure when trying to balance starting both a career and a family. But believe or not, the federal government doesn’t offer any maternity leave. I had to take every scrap of annual and sick leave I’d earned, and then hope some of the senior people would donate more to me, so that I could stay home for 3 months after my daughter was born. Jobs at the national labs are generally very secure; industry jobs offer higher salaries, but also greater risk of lay-off. There is more freedom to pursue basic research than in industry, but a greater need to be relevant to the agency mission than at a university. The strength of national labs compared to universities is often the collaborative nature of the work. There are nearly 1000 Ph.D. scientists at NRL, so chances are if you need experts in any given field to talk to, you can find them on site. It’s a great place to work if you enjoy being part of “big science” that just can’t be done by a lone research group at a university.

4. Besides science, what else is important to you?

Being married to someone who is also in planetary science, and with whom I collaborate, there is no sharp line in my life between research and my regular life. It’s just life. That doesn’t mean I do science 24/7, but that in order to be a mom, a scientist, a wife, a friend, etc… I just fit it all in whenever and wherever I can. A laptop and a family Google calendar are the two things I couldn’t function without. Before our daughter came along, my husband and I went out to dinner four nights a week, went to see a lot of live music, to art galleries, and planned our vacations around how much scuba diving we could do. Now we do a lot more children’s activities, and a lot less eating out and scuba diving. In the last couple of years, we’ve taken up kayaking. It’s great exercise; it’s something we can all enjoy together that gets us out in nature, and it’s not too expensive. Photography is still my biggest personal hobby. I once told my thesis advisor that after twenty years of physics, maybe it would be time for me start a second career as a photographer. Now that it’s been about twenty years since I said that, I still think maybe in twenty years, I’ll become a photographer. For now, I’m really happy spending a day analyzing tiny grains from stars, and then taking my daughter to dance class.

5. What advice do you have for students or postdocs envisioning a career in planetary science?

My biggest advice for women just starting out in planetary science is to be visible and involved. There are really great research programs for undergraduate these days. Volunteer to run the campus student telescope or join the Astronomy club. There’s no better way to find out if you are really passionate about planetary science than to do it yourself. The skills you learn and the connections you make will be invaluable later on. For graduate students and postdocs, I think it is even more important to go beyond the required coursework, and find out what projects the groups around you are working on. Sure, you need to work hard on your own project, but you can gain really valuable new insights and new skills by learning about other people’s work. That’s exactly how I got started in planetary science. I learned about presolar grains and meteorites from talking to my husband and colleagues at the Smithsonian and the Carnegie Institution, and realized that I had the right microscopy skills to address some of the questions they had. It’s really hard to guess what opportunities will be out there when you finish graduate school or a postdoc, so I would say just gather as many skills as you can, and keep your eyes and ears out for a problem that you are uniquely suited to solve. If you get a chance to review proposals and/or serve on a review panel, jump at it. This is the fastest way to learn how to write compelling proposals. Finally, I would say just hang in there. The most important thing for a successful research career is not your grades, or your score on the qualifying exam, or even how powerful your advisor is.

It is your own passion for the work that will carry you through the inevitable rejected proposal, hostile referee report, the serious illness and every other obstacle.   Invest in that passion.

Dr. Stroud is being featured here as one of 51 Women in Planetary Science, a series of interviews with successful women scientists on career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success.  Questions or suggestions for future interviews can be sent to us directly or to our email list, which all women in planetary science can join!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2010 6:22 am

    i have been a volunteer for 2 years on social works and this is a very exciting job for me -`”

  2. November 4, 2010 9:37 am

    i think that once in a while, we should do some social works too because we should help other people _


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