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Diana Blaney: Play to Your Strengths

September 24, 2010

Diana Blaney from JPLDiana Blaney is a scientist at JPL.  I interviewed Dr. Blaney at the 40th Lunar and Planetary Science conference in Houston, Texas, on March 24th, 2009 as part of the Women in Planetary Science Oral History Project.  Dr. Blaney holds a Ph.D. in Geology and Geophysics from the University of Hawaii and a B.S. in Engineering Physics and Mechanical Engineering from The Ohio State University.  She has been selected to work on a large number of NASA flight missions so far in her career – and not all of them have been the experience she expected.

Can you start by telling me a little bit about your background?  When did you first become interested in space science?

I first became interested in space science and science in general from the time I was a little kid.  I always kind of was interested in science, and … I read a book in sixth grade that the main character was a theoretical physicist.  He was an astronaut, and he was doing all these cool things. So, for the longest time, I thought I wanted to be a theoretical physicist, and that lasted actually up until about my sophomore year of college, when I was majoring in engineering physics, and I realized I was neither an engineer nor a physicist, and started looking around for neat projects where I could use my physics and math background….

I started taking earth science classes, even though I kept my major, engineering physics, and there were a lot of problems that could be solved with basic physics that you shouldn’t need a thousand people to solve.…  I did my Ph.D. doing ground-based astronomy of Mars, and I was able to combine all of the engineering I had learned on the instrumentation side from college, with the physics, with the science, with the creative process…. I didn’t actually build any instruments from scratch, but we were responsible for maintaining and bringing them to the telescope and fixing them when they did, and carrying things away and working with the instruments.  So, it was very, very hands-on.  I would take apart environment chambers and fix them and do things.  So, even though it was observational, where you basically get maybe 10 nights a year to do it and then spend most of your time looking at data, getting ready for those 10 nights, making sure everything works, got me a lot of hands-on experience…. I’m not an engineer, but I appreciate good engineers, and I know how their training differs from scientists.  So, a lot of what I do is translating back and forth between scientists and engineers….
I wasn’t one of these kids who took apart a lot of things.  The first time I went into the student shop and learned how to braise metal joints with a torch and use a lathe, it was kind of intimidating, but they had people there who taught you how to do it, and you just kind of rolled up your sleeve and learned it.… Even if it’s not something I do now, I have a better appreciation on how hard some of these things are to do to, like, get real good tolerances on instruments and things like that.

What was your first post-doc?

My first post-doc was at JPL, and I came there because at the time there was a mission called Mars Observer, and it had an instrument that was going to be an imaging spectrometer from the visible out to five microns going around orbiting Mars.  I got there, and within a month or so after I got there, they deselected the instrument from the mission.  And so, I’m there, and the people sponsoring my post-doc were Torrence Johnson and Dennis Matson.…  I pretty much totally switched fields.  I finished the post-doc and ended up getting lucky to get hired at JPL.  And there was another change in administration at NASA, and my post-doc money disappeared.  In retrospect, it was very, very good, because it allowed me some freedom and flexibility rather than working directly for someone and doing something [specified].  I started doing a bunch of different things.  I started working with people doing instrument development stuff.  Mars was always where my heart was, so I started trying to figure out ways to move back more and more to doing Mars research, and started working more with developing relationships with instrumentation people and just kind of doing a variety of different things.  I realized that, after a while, that there was a lot about JPL, being at the edge of the science and the engineering, that was a really good fit, and I felt I could make a contribution there.

Very cool.  So, what projects did you get involved with after that?

The first projects I got were some robotic technology, the Rocky, Fido, field tests.  My first instrument was with Lonne Lane, and we built a little visible spectrometer for a technology rover.  I then wrote a participating scientist proposal to Mars Polar Lander, which got selected, and I was part of that science team for pretty much about three to four weeks before it got canceled….  Then, the other mission I was involved in at that point in time was I was a Co-I, and I was actually in charge of building an infrared spectrometer on the Champollion mission.  It was an instrument called Circle, and Roger Yelle was the PI and I was the IR team chief, and we were going to do an AOTS spectrometer that was going to look at, as they dug the sample out of the comet, we were going to look and do IR, Imaging Spectroscopy, of it.  And again, ’98 was a bad year, because Mars Polar Lander crashed, and that money disappeared.  Champollion and the U.S. did not work out well, and so stuff that I thought was going to keep me busy for the next three or four years all of a sudden disappeared on me again.  So then, the next thing I did is I got involved on–I was a Co-I and worked on a project called, I think it was called MOX at the time, but it was basically a predecessor to URI that was on the 2001 mission, and I was a Co-I on that.  But, after the loss of the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter, that mission also disappeared. 

Did you get frustrated at this point and wonder when it was going to happen for you?

Yes, I really did.  But I had people around me who told me it was persistence, who talked about–like Dennis and Torrence talked about how it was a decade from conception of Cassini and Galileo to when it actually started, and that it’s a long, long haul. 

I’ve been fortunate since then.  I got involved as an investigation scientist on MER, which started giving me some actual hardware, flight experience.  I was a Co-I on Phoenix, and now I’m a Co-I and investigation scientist for ChemCam on MSL….

I’ve written a lot of proposals, and in some ways, I’m not always sure that’s been the wisest thing for my career.  When you write a flight proposal in a major role, those are papers you’re not getting written.  And sometimes, the balance–but at the same time, I think I got the bug early, having the first couple of things I did get through at least the selection gate.  If you don’t try, then you’re always going to wish, “Well, if I had tried and won, what would have happened differently?” 

But, again, it’s something I may have gone too far.  Like right now, I’m hoping to spend the next year really focusing on doing some scientific research, which is much, much more tangible.  I’ve got all this great Phoenix data.  I’ve now been with it from the beginning.  I want to see it through.  I want to write the papers.  I want to get that stuff out.  That’s kind of the thing I like:  I like doing things from the beginning to the very end.

Balancing that type of stuff is hard.  I’m trying now to focus on doing fewer things at a larger portion of my time.… My career goal is I want to build my own instrument.  I’m working hard.  There are a lot of things that, when I first started doing this, I didn’t realize was important.  I didn’t realize politics was important, and I learned that lesson. 

Then, having now watched flight projects from end to end, I know that budgets, reading budgets, risk reviews, understanding how your requirements are written, how do you structure a project, how do you make sure you’ve got–you know what your job, what other people’s jobs are, everyone has very clear roles and responsibilities.  And not only that, they have the authority appropriate to their roles and responsibilities.  Making sure all that’s in sync and that people are talking and there’s enough money and that you are spending your money in the right place, because there’s never really enough money to do what you need to do.  That’s as much a job as being a PI, as being a scientist is, and realizing that a lot of it is sitting through really, really, mind-numbing meetings for the 10 minutes where the make-or-break decisions happen.  You need to be able to recognize those and speak out.

How would you advise a younger Diana who would not know these kinds of things?  I mean, you’re not trained to do those things in graduate school.  That’s not part of the Ph.D. training.   This mission stuff is a whole ‘nother animal.  So, how do you get that experience?

You talk to people, and you seek out mentors.  My early mentors were Dennis and Torrence on the mission stuff.  On the instrument building, it was Lonnie Lane.  Lonnie basically pulled me in just a few years out of grad school on this technology program, which was low budget, none of the rigors of space, but it had all the elements. You had to figure out what you needed to accommodate on the thing, figure out what would fit on the rover, and [he] gave me advice.  And that’s what it is, talking to people, say, “Hey, I’m interested in doing this.  What kind of things should I be doing?” 

The key things are, early in your career you need to be useful.  You need to be the good team player.  Having you on the team needs to make the senior scientists’ lives … easier.  That may be really simple things like, “Hey, there’s this old data set that would be great in the proposal.  I’m going to slog through and get the calibration and make some great figures” [as an example].  Or talking to people.  Say, “Hey, what can I do?”  Mark Robinson and I went to grad school [together].  Mark Robinson, in his free time, for instance, he calibrated an old, obsolete data set, and basically kind of got known by people in the camera community as this is a guy who knows how to do X, Y or Z. 

So, find something that you can do to contribute, even if it’s not really the most sexy thing out there.  And if you’re given an opportunity by somebody, just kind of be the team member.  Be the team player – someone asks you to do something, and you go out and you do it, and you look for things to help to make things.  That’s what happened with Lonnie.  I basically did the stuff he didn’t have time to do, and it wasn’t very glamorous.  The same thing with Dennis and Torrence.  Hard work is important

Figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and play to your strengths.  For instance, I could never do modeling, theoretical modeling stuff.  I tried a theoretical modeling project.  It was a disaster.  But I can figure out what I need to measure and plan observations.  So, play to your strengths.

Since this interview, Dr. Blaney has published four papers in JGR and the following in Science:

The Phoenix mission investigated patterned ground and weather in the northern arctic region of Mars for 5 months starting 25 May 2008 (solar longitude between 76.5° and 148°). A shallow ice table was uncovered by the robotic arm in the center and edge of a nearby polygon at depths of 5 to 18 centimeters. In late summer, snowfall and frost blanketed the surface at night; H2O ice and vapor constantly interacted with the soil. The soil was alkaline (pH = 7.7) and contained CaCO3, aqueous minerals, and salts up to several weight percent in the indurated surface soil. Their formation likely required the presence of water.

Dr. Blaney 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!

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 24, 2010 2:08 pm

    Great interview!

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