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Claudia Alexander: Be prepared to be flexible in your career.

February 3, 2011
  • This interview was conducted by Lynnae Quick, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Claudi AlexanderDr. Alexander is the Project Scientist for the U.S. portion of the international Rosetta mission. She has also been the Cassini Project Staff Scientist and as the final project manager of the Galileo mission, overseeing its fiery crash into Jupiter. Her scientific interests include gaskinetic theory,  theory of gaseous escape from planetary and cometary regoliths,  theory of surface bound exospheres,  magnetospheric plasma theory (terrestrial and planetary),  exobiology,  interdiciplinary science, and oxidation / reduction potential of planetary and cometary regoliths.

Her most recent publications include:

  • C. Alexander, A. Chmielewski, S. Gulkis, P. Weissman, D. Holmes, J. Burch, R. Goldstein, P. Mokashi, S.A. Stern, J. Parker, S. Fuselier, M. Kueppers, A. Accommazzo, “The U.S. Rosetta Project at its second Science Target: Asteroid (21) Lutetia,” IEEE Conference Proceedings, in press.
  • C. Alexander, D. Sweetnam, S. Gulkis, P. Weissman, D. Holmes, J. Burch, R. Goldstein, P. Mokashi, J. Parker, S. Fuselier, L. McFadden, “The U.S. Rosetta Project at its first Science Target: Asteroid (2867) Steins,” IEEE Conference Proceedings, 2010.
  • C. Alexander, R. Carlson, G. Consolmagno, D. Morrison, 400 Years of Discovery at Europa, Europa, Pappalardo, McKinnon, Khurana eds., University of Arizona Press, 2009.

(1) How did you first become interested in the space sciences, in general, and when did you first get involved with planetary science?

I sort of stumbled into it.  I’ll be honest.  I originally wanted to be an historian.  But my parents saw me in an engineering career, and convinced me to be a civil engineering major in college — something they were willing to pay for.  In the end I didn’t connect with civil engineering as a career, but was much more interested in the science of flow, for example, in rivers, rather than in pipes.  During an internship I signed up for at NASA’s Ames Research Center I got turned on to planetary science, and never looked back. At the time they were doing the Pioneer missions to Venus, and the Voyager grand tour of the outer solar system.  It was (and is) a great time to be a planetary scientist because it is such an era of discovery.

(2) We’ve heard from many women in planetary science, some of whom went into postdoctoral positions right after graduate school and others who went straight from graduate school into the workforce. Which path did you choose and what do you feel were the pros and cons of choosing such a path?

I did not do a post-doc, but went in to the workforce, and regretted it immediately.  I regretted it for about ten years.  While the money was good ( I was so insulted by the salaries offered a post-doc), I missed out on some critical development. A post-doc is the time when you are at the height of your powers, so to speak, and able to concentrate on a single science question for a long time, and generate papers that serve as the foundation of your career. In the workforce, my time was split among several different tasks (3-4), and never got a critical mass of time and momentum on any subject enough to develop as a writer.  You have to write. You may not believe in ‘publish or perish’, but a scientist has to write to be credible, and without those critical years to develop one’s voice in science, it is very hard to survive.

(3) You are currently the project scientist for the U.S. Rosetta project and have been involved with both the Galileo and Cassini missions. How did you first get involved in mission work and what are the major differences in the roles and responsibilities you’ve held during each mission?

I got involved in mission work right out of graduate school, and immediately stopped doing the thinking and exploring of the science questions I’d worked in school to trade in engineering questions, small calculations, and the generating of commands to go to the spacecraft.  At first I served as an instrument liaison between the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the university institution(s) where the instruments were built.  I had to know enough science to know if the commands we were writing, and the trade offs we needed as spacecraft resources dried up, were going to get us the science originally planned.  This was an incredibly time- consuming and exacting job (90 hr weeks), and I thought I’d entered the wilderness.  But we were exploring the planet Jupiter and its environment!  How many people get to say that?

A big opportunity arose for me when I was asked to become Project Scientist for the NASA contribution to the International Rosetta mission.  This was getting back into the science that I’d worked in graduate school, so I was quite excited.  But one thing let to another, and it turned out I had some skill at management.  I was asked to take on a dual role as project manager and project scientist of the NASA portion of this mission.  Not that many people in the world will ever be asked to be project manager of a NASA mission. It takes a special set of skills, not least of which are interpersonal skills. You have to be able to articulate the mission and its objectives to a wide range of audience, from school kids to reporters, to NASA administrators.  You have to be able to fight for your project in a shrinking budget world.  You are technically responsible for the safety of the spacecraft and all its components.  It takes a very unique set of skills.

Just for fun (meaning it was an additional duty for me at the time), I was asked to be the final project manager of the historic Galileo mission — and I got to crash the spacecraft into the planet Jupiter (on purpose!).  As an example of the type of role this led to — to this day I am asked to sum up the major contributions of this mission to humankind’s understanding at various venues like PBS’ Nova shows.  I was involved with Galileo and so when Cassini came along, I stayed in the world of Jupiter (and Rosetta), and was left out of the staffing for the Cassini mission to Saturn.  But by the time Cassini was into its first year at Saturn, the science staff felt that they needed someone with my unique blend of skills, so I was hired part time by Cassini (while still supporting Rosetta).  My title at the time was ‘Magnetospheric Discipline Scientist.’  I used my liaison skills at first to represent the interests of the magnetospheric group of instruments (arguing for their science and their issues at the project level).  I also worked a bit supporting science of the moon Titan (one of the only moons with an atmosphere to rival the Earth’s).  Later I was asked to become Cassini Project Staff Scientist — which was sort of like a second deputy Project Scientist.  In this role I began working press releases, convening sessions at major scientific conferences.  In this role I needed to know a whole range of science from Saturn’s atmosphere, to the magnetosphere (my specialty) and to the geophysics of the many moons.  This whole time I was also supporting Rosetta as both Project Scientist and Project Manager.  Needless to say, my life was crazy.  In a good way.  Now that Rosetta is ready to start preparing for its prime mission, I feel that I can transfer everything I learned from my time on Cassini into my job on Rosetta.

(4) What are some of the trade-offs between being heavily involved with missions and being able to teach or do research?

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they like to claim that doing mission work is exactly like being a professor and working with students.  But it is not the same, not by a long shot. A teacher or researcher has a lot more control of their time — the ability to schedule classes or office hours, and the ability to have long hours in which to think without interruption.  Sure there are committees to support, but a scientist at a place like JPL also does the committee work that supports the broader community, such as serving on organizing committees for conferences, on panels to review proposals, and on National Science Foundation committees.  Mission work involves a constant barrage of issues, a steady stream of urgent e-mails and phone calls.  If you are lucky enough to support a flying mission, there are almost always unexpected anomalies or resource changes that draw you away from whatever you had planned for any given day.  The tradeoff — a small teaching university will probably never provide the visibility nor salary, nor ability to do the really big science questions that a NASA mission does.  Most scientists would give their eye-teeth to be involved in exploration of the solar system, because it is the data from these missions that drives the intellectual energy in the field.  Larger research universities also provide opportunities to look at the big questions, but not with the visibility of a NASA mission.

(5) In addition to your work at JPL, you’ve also done a fair amount of public outreach to groups that are generally underrepresented in the sciences. In your opinion, how important is it to the future of science to ensure that the next generation is exposed to diverse groups of women working in STEM disciplines (i.e. women with different ethnic, career, and scientific backgrounds)?

This is an interesting question.  Unlike social fields, where exposure to diverse populations of people is critical for the average person to understand the world as it is, in Western science, equations are the great equalizer.  It doesn’t matter for the solution, what the gender or background of the solver is.  That being said, I personally believe that we should be open to alternate ways of viewing the universe — that aboriginal peoples and their ‘ways of knowing’ may end up being critical to humankind’s survival on this planet.  So I believe that being open to and recruiting more input from Native peoples is important.  The future of science will be forced to change mostly from the simple demographics of the population, as it becomes more ethnically diverse in the U.S., and fewer traditional white males are attracted, percentage-wise, into science.  

I also strongly believe that science is no longer a vocation where an individual sits in a darkened lab with his instruments, tinkering away at some big question.  Science is collaborative, and will become more so. Individuals, male or female, who are able to communicate well are going to have a greater degree of success.  It’s in public policy, with respect to Earth science questions in particular, where diversity in input will be important for future generations.  For example, African-Americans living in the south might greatly benefit from having a suite of scientists drawn from the region, involved in public policy about land use, estuarine science, marine biology and fisheries, etc.  The community has a vested interest in these issues, and schools in the region ought to recruit students from the very same community.

(6) Do you have any advice for graduate students or early career scientists who are just starting out in the planetary field?

It is critical, no matter whether you choose to do a post-doc or not, to learn how to write.  Learn how to respond to reviewers.  Learn how to write a competitive proposal.  In the case of both papers and proposals, you may have to submit 4-5 times before you start having success. Don’t be discouraged by that.  Find the early career help within your professional organizations (like the American Geophysical Union).  Often there are seminars at AGU or NSF on how to write a successful proposal (ed. note: the next one will be NASA’s proposal-writing workshop at LPSC).  These are fantastic resources, and you should make use of them.  You’ll need all the advice you can get.  Don’t be afraid to write a blog or a book as a way to get started on the path of writing.  Be prepared to be flexible in your career.  You may end up switching completely from what you did for your dissertation.  And again.  And again.  One of my favorite lines is a friend of mine who complained that in a matter of weeks he’d gone from being the world’s leading expert on the moon Io (volcanic) to the world’s leading expert on the icy moon Europa!  Your career is going to be like that.  Moreover, you’d better be prepared to be the early one to find that niche that no one has yet thought of.  Too many people hang their hat on a specific area of expertise for too many decades, and can’t move into new areas of science when the time comes to switch.

Thanks to Lynnae for conducting this interview and to Claudia for sharing her insights!

Dr. Alexander 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!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2020 6:21 pm

    In another great honoring of Claudia’s contributions to planetary science, the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society has named a new prize after Claudia!

  2. July 16, 2015 6:28 pm

    Reblogged this on L. Tamar Minter, PhD and commented:
    May Dr.Alexander rest in power! I am inspired by her story and her advice.


  1. Dr. Claudia Alexander – Planetary Scientist – POC Squared
  2. Passing of Claudia Alexander | Women in Planetary Science: Female Scientists on Careers, Research, Space Science, and Work/Life Balance

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