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Faith Vilas: Take that opportunity!

November 24, 2010

Faith VilasFaith Vilas is a planetary astronomer and the Director of the MMT Observatory in Arizona.  Vilas has worked at  Johnson Space Center, traveled to serarch for meteorites in Antarctica with ANSMET, and done a detail at NASA Headquarters, where she served as the chief scientist for the Discovery Program in the Solar System Exploration Division (Faith and I met at NASA Headquarters and have kept in touch since).  Next year, she will be leaving the MMT to join the Planetary Science Institute to create and direct the Atsa Suborbital Observatory.  The following interview was begun at the 2010 AAS meeting and completed via email.

A recent publication that Vilas is particularly proud of predates the discovery of water on the moon by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper and LCROSS:

Vilas, F., Jensen, E. A., Domingue, D. L., McFadden, L. A., Runyon, C. J., Mendell, W. W. (2008). A newly-identified spectral reflectance signature near the lunar South pole and the South Pole-Aitken Basin. Earth, Planets and Space, 60, 67-74.

1. How did you first become interested in space science?

When I was in Second Grade, I was given a copy of The Golden Book of Astronomy.  While we hadn’t launched any spacecraft yet (I guess that dates me), the book included discussions of the future space program as well as the planets, stars, and galaxies.  Starting with that book, I was hooked on studying astronomy and working with the space program.

2. Tell us a bit about your early career path, at the University of Arizona and afterwards.  Who influenced you?

Can I start with my career path before I got to the U. of A. as a grad student?  In high school, I was an active member of the Astronomy Club (president my junior year), and participated in an NSF-sponsored class in the Chicago area for high school students entitled the Astro-Science Workshop every Saturday morning one year.  The TA for that school, a graduate student at Northwestern U. named Harry Heckathorn, spoke of the advantages of going to a liberal arts college as an undergraduate, causing me to look at many of them.  I persuaded the director of the Adler Planetarium at that time, Joe Chamberlain, to hire me one summer in high school.  He gave me much advice about college and grad school and what to study.  I ended up going to Wellesley College as an undergraduate because they had (and have) a strong undergraduate astronomy program.  One professor there, Sally Hill, encouraged me to follow my scientific interests in planets, even though no one at the college conducted planetary astronomy research.  She was seminal in the careers of many women astronomers.

Beginning in high school (to last through part of grad school), I was also a member of the Civil Air Patrol.  Through them, I got my pilot’s license.  I’m a third generation pilot, and still a single and multi-engine instrument pilot.  My husband, Larry Smith, and I have a 1947 Navion.

I went to MIT to work with Tom McCord for a master’s degree in Earth and Planetary Sciences.  I wanted to work on Mars; he persuaded me that if I targeted Mercury as the topic for my master’s thesis, he’d send me to Cerro Tololo to observe it.  I jumped the Mars ship, and went to Chile twice, fell in love with Chile, decided I wanted a break from school, and went to CTIO as a research assistant for a couple of years after finishing the master’s degree.  And backpacked around South America after leaving the job, and worked for Lockheed Electronics at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for a year while I applied to grad school.

THEN I went to the U. of A.  Many people influenced me there, both professors, research associates, and other grad students.  Chief among them would be Don Hunten, Harold Reitsema, Steve Larson, Brad Smith.  The grad students who influenced me all know who they are…

3. You’ve spent time working at the University of Arizona, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, NASA Headquarters, and the MMT Observatory at Arizona.  Did your location affect your research priorities?  How?

I knew that I always wanted to be involved with ground-based astronomical observing, as well as working with instrumentation and image processing.  I certainly have had that opportunity at the MMT, although managerial positions (program or line management) do not allow for much time to do research.  My job at JSC started out for the first seven years as primarily supporting the efforts to quantify the amount of orbital debris from spacecraft in low Earth orbit, geosynchronous orbit, or geotransfer orbit.  It was a direct application of astronomical observing techniques to characterizing space debris, both through ground- and space-based observations.  JSC’s curation efforts also influenced me, and I participated in the 1987 – 88 ANSMET field season in Antarctica.

4. What does the job of Director of the MMT Observatory entail?  How do you balance that with other outside interests?

I manage the operations of the 6.5-m MMT telescope and associated instrumentation on Mt. Hopkins, conduct short-term and long-term observatory planning, and prepare and administer the annual budget.  I supervise the best scientific and technical staff in the world.  I also represent the observatory to outside scientific, public, and funding interests. After 5 years, I will be leaving the MMT, however, to join the Planetary Science Institute to create and direct the Atsa Suborbital Observatory with collaborator Luke Sollitt from The Citadel, and conduct my own research.

My outside interests have largely been finding the time and means to be with my husband who works in Texas still, and our efforts to restore the older house we have in Tucson (and watching HGTV in support of that).  I hope that the new position with PSI that I will have beginning next year will allow us to cut down on commuter marriage (which can work but can be tough at times).

5. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

There are two very strong pieces of advice that I give to people going into any field: be tenacious and be opportunistic. Persistence will get you further than almost any other attribute.  And if an indirect route to something you are pursuing opens up through a new opportunity, take that opportunity! Oh – yes – there’s also my 24-hr rule:  if an e-mail makes you want to jump through the computer and strangle someone, wait 24 hr to answer.

Now that’s good advice!  Thanks, Faith!

Dr. Vilas 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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