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Ghislaine Crozaz: On the Apollo samples, Antarctica, and mentoring

November 2, 2010

Ghislaine Crozaz

Dr. Ghislaine Crozaz is Professor Emerita of Geochemistry in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department of Washington University. Retired, she has now returned to her native Belgium, where she received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees.  She continues to meet and advise students, and, “apart from enjoying the thrill of research, she has most enjoyed training, and interacting with, an exciting group of gifted graduate students whose postgraduate accomplishments are for her a constant source of pleasure.”  (She says it so well on the Washington University web site that for me to paraphrase would surely diminish its impact.)  I first met Ghislaine as a young graduate student, and as I have always been impressed with her mentoring of her own students, I asked her to join us here to speak about her career, her advice for students, and her outlook on mentoring. 

1. What first interested you in space science?

There was no space science when I was growing up! I was good in math and science. I read a lot, not just about science, and often roamed the (empty) Museum of Science. I became particularly interested in radioactivity. In my last year at the University of Brussels, I took a course in Radioactive Methods applied to the Geological Sciences and was offered a job by the teacher, Edgard Picciotto. He had wintered over in Antarctica during the IGY and was pioneering the use of isotopic methods in Antarctic ice. Frustrated by my immediate supervisor who did essentially nothing and took the results of my work to the boss, I asked to be considered as a PhD candidate. From then on, my life was wonderful as I discovered the joy of discovery. I developed the Pb210 dating method and studied fission products in polar snows, this at a time when no women went to Antarctica. The person who really made a scientist out of me was Picciotto. He was a wonderful mentor. From him, I learned to look at all aspects of a problem with a critical mind, which was definitely not a part of the curriculum in european universities at the time, I learned to be rigorous, to take all data into account whether they favor one’s prejudices or not, and foremost I learned to write. He dissected my PhD thesis for both content and style and I never forgot this lesson which I subsequently used with all my graduate students. The transition to space science (actually the study of meteorites) came about because, as part of the PhD requirements in Brussels, I had to come up with an idea for another PhD thesis. I had noticed that, at the time, estimates of the flux of interplanetary dust on earth varied over 9 orders of magnitude and I suggested that the flux could be better estimated using Mn53, induced in space by cosmic rays on the dust, in Antarctic ice. This led me to read most that was known about meteorites in the early 60’s. From then on, the study of extraterrestrial matter became a passion for me.

2. Looking back, what were some of the most memorable moments of your career?

Chronologically, the first “big” event certainly was the arrival and study of the Apollo lunar samples.
WUSTL and the Apollo samples

This is the Wash U crowd at the time of the Apollo samples. Bob Walker and Ghislaine Crozaz are front row, center.

In the meantime, I had met Bob Walker at a conference on meteorites and he had offered me a postdoctoral position in his laboratory (I was also offered the possibility to be part of the first scientific all women team to Antarctica but they were going to the Dry Valleys where there is no ice and I did not know much about terrestrial rocks as I had been trained as a chemist). In 1969 and part of 1970, I literally worked on lunar samples around the clock, every day and every evening, except for Saturday mornings which were reserved for grocery shopping and apartment cleaning. It was intense but great fun.

Going to Antarctica to search for meteorites was the accomplishment of an old dream which I thought would never be realized as I had changed field. But… in the mid-70s, it became obvious that Antarctica could become a great source of meteorites. Thanks to Bill Cassidy, who led ANSMET for so many years, I participated in two meteorite search expeditions. I truly loved this experience. After the first, Bob Walker whom I had married in the meantime, claimed that there was only one crazy person in the family but he nevertheless joined me for the second experience, this time in the gorgeous Beardmore area. And then there is an infinity of “smaller” moments working with graduate students, seeing them develop and watching their postgraduate accomplishments. In a sense they are the children I never had. As I read the profiles of other women in this series, I realize that many of them have children, certainly a situation that was much more difficult to balance some 40 years ago, particularly as a young teaching professor. But I have absolutely no regrets as I never had an urge to have children of my own.

3. You have mentored many graduate students who have gone on to great success in planetary science, and who remember you as a good mentor. In what ways do you feel a faculty advisor can encourage their students?

There are many ways to encourage students depending on your personality. Personally, I am more like a mother but a demanding one. I am naturally enthusiastic and quick to praise but I don’t shy away from pointing out deficiencies, but in a nice way. I took my graduate students to conferences as soon as financially possible, even in their first year when they had no results to present. I remembered going to my first conference only after completion of my PhD… and I came back feeling I had a bottle of oxygen on my back. I was so excited: a Nobel Prize winner asked me the first question after my presentation, I made contacts that proved useful later, and I even got two postdoc offers. Presenting a paper at a conference is also an opportunity for students to pause and reconsider where their project is heading, and hone their skills to write an abstract and to verbally present the essentials in a logical and convincing way.

4. For many years, you were faculty in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department at Washington University, while your husband was faculty in the Physics department there. Would you like to talk about the challenges or rewards of working in the same field as your spouse?

It is true that I started studying extraterrestrial materials with Bob and, therefore, we worked and published together for a few years. This applied to other people like Ernst Zinner as well. But starting in the mid-70s when I became an assistant professor, I had a strong desire to have my own research projects. From then on, there was no joint paper and we never shared graduate students, a fact that was probably not widely recognized in the scientific community. On the other hand, the rewards of sharing my life with Bob were enormous. I feel extremely lucky to have been, for 35 years, the soulmate of this immensely creative person with a passion for science and everything he undertook. He created a lab in which conducting research was always exciting, sometimes exhausting, but always fun. And so was life with him.

5. What would you like to tell young scientists just beginning their career?

For all: Go for what you really want to do (and have fun along the way). Learn to write well, it is indispensable. Be visible. Attend and contribute to scientific meetings. Make contacts. I really enjoyed the collaborations, established mainly at meetings.

For graduate students: Choose carefully your mentor. You will have to work with him/her for a few years. Looking back at my career, I see how much “luck” (for lack of a better word) and chance encounters played. And, finally, do not be afraid to take some risks… sometimes.

Thank you, Ghislaine!

Dr. Crozaz 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. November 8, 2010 10:56 pm

    This was a great interview! Thanks!

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