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Zibi Turtle: Even though it is not always easy… being a planetary scientist is one of the coolest jobs on the planet!

January 25, 2011

Elizabeth Turtle with impact rocksDr. Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle is a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.  Her research focus is using remote sensing observations and numerical geophysical models to study geological structures and their implications for the surfaces and interiors of the planets on which they formed, including, but not limited to, impact cratering on terrestrial planets and icy satellites, creep of ice-rich permafrost on Mars, mountain formation on Io, and lakes on Titan.  She was an associate of the imaging team on Galileo and is currently an associate of the imaging and RADAR teams on Cassini, and a Co-Investigator on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.


Her most recent publication is:

  • Turtle, E. P., A. D. Del Genio, J. Barbara, J. E. Perry, E.L. Schaller, A. S. McEwen, R. A. West, and T. L. Ray (2011), Seasonal changes in Titan’s meteorology, Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2010GL046266, in press.

1.      What first inspired you to study space science?

Between my dad and my grandmother, my sister and I spent a lot of time looking at the sky when we were growing up — I don’t even remember learning the names of the planets.  My grandmother knew all of the constellations and the mythology associated with them and was wonderful at telling the stories :).  My dad would let us stay up late or wake us up in the middle of the night to see meteor showers (which I remember thinking were pretty scary at the time), lunar eclipses, aurorae, and comets, and sometimes he’d get out the telescope he built and we’d just explore the sky.  We made pinholes in cardboard to follow a partial solar eclipse.  Our favorite board game was called Space Hop, wherein one’s mission assignments only gave characteristics of the destinations, not the names, and one would have to learn which Solar System body was meant.  Eventually we not only knew the answers, but we also knew which ones had become outdated as Solar System exploration proceeded — growing up in the 70’s there were Pioneers, Vikings and Voyagers to follow, and we watched Nova and, of course, Cosmos, avidly.  And then there was the Space Shuttle, which was incredibly inspirational to me.   So, it’s hardly a surprise that I ended up in planetary science  🙂

I did consider pursuing interests in archaeology, architecture and languages at various times, but when I started college I was pretty sure I wanted to study space science.  I decided to major in physics since it was broader in scope, and started with elective courses in astrophysics which was, of course, completely fascinating, and astronomical observing, not to mention a particularly fun seminar in celestial navigation 🙂  However, it was the courses in planetary science that really grabbed me — the idea of being able to go to planets and moons and actually explore them, if not in person, with robotic missions, was (and is) incredibly exciting.  I took all of the planetary science courses I could as an undergraduate and then applied to planetary graduate programs.

2.      Where did you postdoc, and for how long?

I was a postdoc at the Lunar and Planetary Lab. at Univ. Arizona for five years.  My choice may have gone against common wisdom that it’s not good to stay at one’s graduate institution for a postdoc, but there were a number of reasons I decided to do this.  One was that my postdoctoral advisor was not my dissertation advisor and the projects I worked on as a postdoc were very different from those I worked on as a grad student.  Another was that among the choices I had for postdocs, at the time LPL was the only one where I could be a P.I. on my own grant proposals, which I took advantage of.  Another factor was the two-body problem, in that my husband was also a postdoc in planetary science at Univ. Arizona at that time, although there were options that would have accommodated both of us, so luckily for us this was just another thing to consider rather than an absolute constraint.

While I was a postdoc I was also awarded a research grant through the Planetary Science Institute, and so I worked part of my time there as a research scientist.  Working at two different institutions was a great experience.

3.      How did you choose/end up at your current institution? 

During my postdoc, I started to apply for other positions, including a research faculty position at Univ. Arizona which I was offered and took.  After a few years there we decided to look into what other options were available to us and were fortunate enough to both get job offers at a few different places.  Of those, APL was the best fit.  In particular, we both enjoy a combination of research and working on missions.  Of course, there were other factors too, such as proximity to family.

4.      Do you have any advice for students and postdocs just starting their career in space science? 

Being a planetary scientist and working with spacecraft missions is one of the coolest jobs on the planet (which is not to say that I wouldn’t have loved to have qualified for a job that would take me off the planet!), but it’s not always easy, and just because it isn’t always easy doesn’t mean one can’t do it and do it well.  There are certainly people to whom scientific research (and the entire scientific process, including getting proposals funded, writing papers, public speaking, etc.) comes naturally and even easily (or, perhaps more to the point, seems to), but it’s ok if it doesn’t.  Hard work and perseverance (or sometimes just plain stubbornness 🙂   ) are effective too.  It also seems to me that there’s a huge element of luck and just being in the right place at the right time, so patience is essential, too. 

Finding good people to work with can make a big difference (and by good I don’t mean only in terms of being a good scientist, but also in terms of having similar philosophies to yours and who are supportive and encourage you to develop and follow your own ideas).  I’ve been lucky to work with some really excellent scientists and mentors; some of the best mentors I had in grad school were other grad students.

I think that taking advantage of opportunities for a variety of experiences in grad school and as a post-doc is very important too.  Of course there’s a risk of getting spread too thin, so it can be a tricky balance (one which I wish I knew how to achieve!).

5. Have you been involved in missions?
Yes, I was an associate of the Galileo Imaging Team and I’m currently an associate of the Cassini Imaging and RADAR Teams and a Co-Investigator on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.
6. What are some of the challenges and rewards?
The excitement of seeing new territory or seeing previously explored terrain in a different way (new wavelength, higher resolution, topography, etc.) and making new discoveries really can’t be beat — one of my favorite memories is going into the office late in the evening to see brand new images of Io that had just been played back from Galileo.  On the other hand, missions can have a lot of tedious work and often seem to consist almost entirely of a long series of difficult negotiations.  Working with missions, as everything, can be a tricky balance, especially early in one’s career.  (In my case, my first real mission involvement in terms of mission-planning work came when I was a postdoc.)  It’s easy to spend a lot of time on mission work — there’s a lot to be done and the deadlines are usually immediate — which can take away time from research.  So, this can be particularly risky in grad school (especially if the mission isn’t returning data to work on yet).  On the other hand, mission teams are excellent for networking and can really be a lot of fun.
7. What do you do for fun?
I row competitively with the Baltimore Rowing Club, which takes up almost all of the rest of my time.  Back in Tucson, I was fortunate enough to get to play Taiko (Japanese drumming) with the drumming ensemble Odaiko Sonora.  My preference for team-oriented extra-curricular activities may also explain why I enjoy working in teams on missions, research projects, etc. 

My favorite activity is hanging out with my family (lots of nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.  🙂   ) and I try to visit them as often as possible.  I also like to ski, read, travel, cook, and a bunch of other things I rarely have time for.

I’m not terribly good at the whole work-life balance issue, but I have found that having connections and commitments outside of work makes a big and very positive difference.  For me, it’s especially helpful to regain an external perspective or even an escape when I’ve been beating my head against the wall on one project or another for too long.

8. What other priorities do you have and how do you balance them?

Family is my primary priority, which can be a bit challenging with the rather crazy work and travel schedule imposed by research, mission, and proposal deadlines, especially since our extended family’s rather spread out, but we try to make time to visit as much as possible.  I certainly wouldn’t say that I’ve found a good balance though.

9. What is one (or more) opportunities you took advantage of along the way to your current position that you would recommend to others?

I was fortunate to have a graduate advisor who felt that graduate school was the place to take advantage of opportunities to explore, and I definitely recommend taking advantage of such opportunities, even if they’re not directly related to one’s research topic.  One of the best opportunities I had was participating in student mission-planning projects.  A group of students from Brown and Univ. Arizona worked together for several weeks to plan a mission and then spent a week at JPL working with their Advanced Projects Design Team.  (Something similar has been incorporated into the JPL Planetary Science Summer School).   It was an incredible amount of work, but also a lot of fun and a great experience to learn about what goes into designing a mission, especially having to make decisions when (not if!) the resources didn’t allow every instrument to be carried or every experiment to be done.
Thanks so much for your great advice Zibi!
Dr. Turtle 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. Kate permalink
    February 2, 2011 1:13 pm

    Hi! I really enjoyed this article. Thanks! I had actually been interested in finding out if APL had planetary scientists there. Does anyone know if they have post-doc positions? I’ll be starting to look soon. Could I contact Dr. Turtle? Thanks, Looking forward to seeing everyone at LPSC!

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