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Anita Cochran: Build Collaborations

September 28, 2010

Anita CochranAnita Cochran is Assistant Director of the McDonald Observatory and a senior research scientist at The University of Texas at Austin.  Dr. Cochran has been a Co-I on CONTOUR, chair of the AAS Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS), a member of the current NRC Planetary Decadal Survey comets sub-group, and a member of the imaging team on CRAF.  Earlier this year, she deposited new data to the PDS on observations of Comet Tempel 1, as a follow-up to Deep Impact’s encounter in 2005 and in preparation for NASA’s return on 14 February 2011. 

Additional recent publications include:

How did you first become interested in space science?

I was an undergraduate at Cornell University in the ’70s.  I was a physics major and knew nothing of astronomy but I had an advisor who suggested his students take 1 of every science.  I fit astronomy into my schedule first and fell in love.  During my junior year, I started to work for Joe Veverka.  He was very encouraging for my career.  He was also involved in lots of missions. When I went off to grad school, he stayed interested and suggested directions to pursue.  And when the Comet Rendezvous/Asteroid Flyby mission came around, he encouraged me to apply to be on the imaging team, which he led.

Tell us about McDonald Observatory.

McDonald Observatory is an arm of The University of Texas at Austin and is located in the Davis Mountains of far west Texas.  It is 450 miles from Austin, 200 miles east of El Paso.  It is absolutely beautiful and very remote and dark.

At McDonald, we have the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, a 9.2m telescope of a unique design that concentrates on spectroscopy.  It is 100% queue scheduled.  We also have the 2.7m Harlan J. Smith telescope (where I do most of my research), the 2.1m Otto Struve telescope and a 0.8m telescope – all for classically assigned telescope time.  We have a 0.9m telescope which is mostly used for public programs.

As part of our site we have a 1.2m telescope called MONET, whose twin is in South Africa.  This telescope is run by the University of Goettingen.  We have an 18 inch ROTSE telescope.  Boston University also has a telescope at the site.

In addition, we have a large visitors center and program, with several of their own telescopes.  We also have the newly dedicated Wren-Marcario Accessible Telescope – it can be used by someone in a wheelchair.  The visitors program has >60,000 visitors a year (and remember, I said the site was remote).

You’ve done many things in your career, including chair of the DPS, service on COMPLEX and other NRC committees, associate editor of M&PS, Co-Investigator on CONTOUR, and Assistant Director of McDonald Observatory.  How do you balance this significant service with your own research?

I feel that giving back to the community is important and so I have been willing to say yes when asked to serve on various committees.  I have found that I generally learn things by being on these various committees too.  So, they are enjoyable.  Some of these committees have taken large chunks of time, but in general, you can work in short bursts on most committees and spend the rest of the time on science.

The job that takes the most time away from science is the Assistant Director of McDonald Observatory.  However, my boss, David Lambert, is a great scientist and realizes it is important that his staff gets to do science.  It helps that I am no longer on soft money (I was on soft money for 22 years) so my research does not get interrupted by having to hustle for money (except this year when I am PI on one Discovery mission proposal and Co-I on another).  Also, as my career has progressed, I have built collaborations which allow me to still get science done without having to do it all myself.

I enjoy all these committees so it is worth it for me.  For some it would be a burden but I meet new and interesting people, have new challenges and get satisfaction from doing the job.  I have always worked for people who have thought this service was important, so it has never hampered my career.

4. What advice do you have for graduate students or postdoctoral fellows mapping out their career?

First piece of advice is that if you are not passionate about the science and the process, find another career.

Second piece of advice is learn to like (or at least not dislike) writing.  It is what we do for a living.

Third, don’t pick a sub-field because it is popular today.  It might not be tomorrow.  Or you might not be able to stick out.

Fourth, you can always change your mind.  It is harder to change directions when you are on soft money but even then you can do it.

Fifth, have a life outside the field too.  It makes what you do for a living a little more balanced (I bicycle, do advanced and challenge square dancing, and drink and collect wine).

One of the perks of our field is that you get to travel – sometimes to neat places.  Take advantage of this.

Is there anything else you’d particularly like to talk about?

Much of how my career has been shaped has been because I met my husband when I entered grad school.  He was a post-doc.  We have a classic two-body career.  Early on, we could make it work because there was a big planetary science block grant at Texas that I could get my nose in.  That gave me time to establish myself.  Times are harder now so I am not sure how that would work today.  If you are in a two-body situation, you have to talk to your spouse and figure out what sacrifices you are or are not willing to make to be able to continue in your (or their) career.

In our case, I did something which is not recommended – I stayed at my graduate institution after I finished.  That is not recommended because it is really hard to get people to realize you are no longer a grad student.  Eventually they figure it out.  I even became Assistant Director so you can progress.  We also both did the soft money thing (me for 22 years, Bill still is on soft money) so we “controlled” our fates.

Perseverance and hard work are more important than smarts.  If you really want to be an astronomer, you can overcome lots of obstacles. Just don’t tell the public we are being paid for our hobby!

Dr. Cochran 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!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sona permalink
    October 4, 2010 2:17 am

    Wonderful!… Thanks for the wonderful interview!… i know Anita is a GREAT scientist… and i am looking forward meeting here and it would be great is i can get a chance to talk with her…. especially now that we all are at DPS! i hope she is too! 😀


  1. Discovery missions downselected – and women rule the day « Women in Planetary Science: Female Scientists on Careers, Research, Space Science, and Work/Life Balance

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