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Carolyn van der Bogert: Be flexible and proactive.

November 22, 2010

Carolyn van der Bogert at LRO launchCarolyn van der Bogert is a research scientist at the Institute for Planetology at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster, Germany. She is a Science Team Associate on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. The picture at left shows her at the Cape, just before LRO’s launch on 18 June 2009.  

van der Bogert’s most recent coauthored publications are:

Watters, T.R. et al. Evidence of Recent Thrust Faulting on the Moon Revealed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.  Science 20 August 2010: vol. 329 no. 5994, pp. 936-940.
Bray, V. J. et al. (2010) New insight into lunar impact melt mobility from the LRO camera.  GRL 37, L21202-7.
I talked to Carolyn recently via email.
1. When did you first become interested in space science?

I’ve always been interested in science and nature. Since I grew up on a small farm in the mountains of North Carolina, nature was right out the door, ripe for exploration every day. My parents, brother and I also went to lots of parks, mineral shows, caves, and museums. We even regularly panned for semiprecious gemstones at the Emerald Village in Little Switzerland, NC. Also, I’ve always been an avid reader: devouring many science fiction and fantasy books as a youngster. After reading books like Ringworld, Rama, and 2010, who wouldn’t want to explore space? But, what got me seriously interested in space science was a public talk that I went to with my Dad at Appalachian State University about the Voyager 2 mission when I was in the 8th grade. What impressed me the most were the images of Uranus’s moon Miranda.  I was utterly fascinated by Verona Rupes, a massive fault scarp that is almost 3 km high! That’s quite a cliff. Miranda overall is a fascinating moon. How could it have formed? Was it really blasted apart and reassembled like some cosmic Humpty Dumpty?

When I started thinking about college, I knew that I wanted to study geology, but I was still interested in planets and moons, so I decided to study planetary geology. I applied to colleges that had undergraduate degrees in planetary science (relatively few) and ended up going to Boston University. There, I had a great professor, Bob Kerr, for an introductory planetary science class, who always had reams of information for us each lecture. He later became my advisor for my Planetary & Space Sciences major, and supervised my senior thesis about the K/T Boundary extinctions. I also had fun working with Michael Mendillo on space weather as part of my work-study job. One of his other fascinating research areas was observation of the lunar exosphere. At the same time, I worked on a double major in Geology. I wrote my term paper for my Structural Geology class about impact craters. For a senior project, I worked with a new geology faculty member, Carol Simpson, on the petrology of fault-related and impact-related pseudotachylites. She had done her master’s work on the Vredefort Structure in South Africa. She was really the first female role model that I had in the two male-dominated departments: Astronomy and Geology. It was a real pleasure to work on pseudotachylites with her.

Having studied the structural geology of impact craters, written an undergraduate thesis about the K/T Boundary, and a senior project about pseudotachylites led me to decide to study impact processes during graduate school. I contacted a couple of potential advisors and ended up at Brown University to work with Pete Schultz. I studied high strain-rate deformation during the impact process by performing a series of shear deformation experiments with John Spray at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

2. After you finished your Ph.D. you worked in the gemstone industry for 2 years. How did you end up there?

I spent 8 years working on my masters and doctoral degrees, so I needed a little break from academia! I wanted to have a job that didn’t require constant vigilance to applying for soft money. I also needed well-defined hourly boundaries. I had had some trouble in graduate school with feeling like I ALWAYS had to work. There was always more to be done! I wanted to try something completely different for a time, recalibrate my work ethic, and reevaluate my interest in an academic career. So, as I was finishing up my dissertation, I contacted some of the research staff at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), to find out whether they had an interest in hiring additional research staff.

I worked in the NYC office of the GIA for 2 years doing both research on diamonds and gemstones and identification reports for the jewelry industry. Needless to say, investigations of gemstones and jewelry pieces require nondestructive analytical techniques! The work gave me an opportunity to learn about lots of different spectroscopic techniques including UV-Vis, IR, and Raman spectroscopy. It was also very satisfying to look at each gemstone in the microscope – to adventure into the interiors of beautiful gems and enjoy the ever-fascinating landscapes of inclusions. We could even use certain sets of inclusions identify the geologic and geographic origins of the stones!

My main research project was to characterize a rare group of hydrogen-rich colored diamonds. These diamonds, with colors ranging from gray-to-blue-to-violet, are only known to occur in the Argyle Mine, Australia. As individual diamonds of this sort came through the GIA Lab for identification, I collected a suite of spectroscopic and gemological data on them. The result was a paper: van der Bogert C. H., Smith C. P., Hainschwang T. and McClure S. F. (2009) Gray-to-blue-to-violet hydrogen-rich diamonds from Argyle Mine, Australia.  Gems & Gemology 45, 20-37.

However, I began to miss the less structured world of academia (and I started to tire of long commutes), so I started thinking about returning to academia.

3. How did you end up in Germany?

The two-body problem sometimes also offers great and unexpected opportunities. With a little luck there was a research position available at the same institute where my husband was hired as a professor. Having learned how to use a transmission electron microscope during my doctoral work served as a door! Behind this new door was the opportunity to study the newly returned Stardust samples! However, that opportunity only lasted for about 2 years, because that research group was winding down with the retirement of Elmar Jessberger. Now, I have switched gears again to finally work on an on-going mission, LRO, with the camera team. It has been very exciting to see images of impact craters and related deposits as never seen before! The Moon offers a great laboratory for studying impact craters that have not been weathered, eroded, or otherwise destroyed or covered up like most of those on Earth.

My husband and I also moved to Germany for personal reasons. We seriously needed to regain some quality of life. We rather naively thought that we could both have jobs that required commuting and just live halfway between. However, what resulted was hours of commuting and little time for a home life. Germany also has much more generous support for parental leave. Moving to Germany allowed us to cut our commute to about 10 minutes, and currently, I am on parental leave for a year.

Working in Germany has been a really great experience. Nearly everyone in the Institute can speak English, so I’ve never felt isolated or pressured to learn German in order to be able to work. Being able to gradually learn German, through some language courses, talking with colleagues, and (yes!) watching television, has been very rewarding. After 4 years in Germany, I am pretty fluent. I never thought I would be fluent in another language or live in another country. Planetary science definitely opened that door for me. I highly recommend studying or working in another country. (If you’re interested in working in Germany, then consider applying for a Humboldt Fellowship!) It is fascinating to learn how other cultures and countries operate and make comparisons with the U.S. Sure, I miss some things about the U.S: how friendly Americans are, Thanksgiving, and particular foods. However, there are things about Germany that I like better than in the U.S.: for example, universal healthcare, parental leave, and overall environmental friendliness.

4. What advice do you have for students and scientists planning families?

Be flexible. Be proactive. Look for ways to develop skills and expertise that can be used for many different research areas. This is especially useful if you are one half of a two-body problem. Flexibility opens lots of doors, and you have to be nimble in changing your research topic around a common theme or set of skills. For example, learn how to use a couple of different analytical methods. Focus on a geological process, or focus on learning how to process and analyze different kinds of data. If you like working on missions, learn GIS and how to process and analyze different kinds of image data. When you have an arsenal of skills and tools at your disposal, you can work not only in planetary science, but in many other areas.

When looking for your next opportunity, do not be afraid to ask for one. I asked Pete Schultz if I could work with him for graduate school. I asked the staff at the GIA for a position they didn’t know they needed. I asked whether there was a research position at the Institute for Planetology. (In fact, all the positions I’ve ever held are ones that I asked for, not ones that I applied for on the basis of an advertisement.)

For me, it has not been a disadvantage to take time away from academia to pursue other interests or to have a family. During the two years that I worked at the GIA, the planetary science community did not radically change, so it was easy for me to reintegrate myself when I started working on Stardust. I know that taking a year of parental leave will also not greatly impact my career. Perhaps the greatest impact that family planning has had on my career is my decision that I will not try to climb ever higher and higher on the academic ladder. I have found that having a research position satisfies my desire to do science, while allowing me to still have time for other interests and for my family.

Thanks, Carolyn!  We’ve been “Facebook friends” for quite a while now, and I really enjoyed learning your story! 

Dr. van der Bogert 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!

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