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Sarah Noble and the Congressional Science Fellowship

February 10, 2011

After working at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, on the Hill, at NASA Headquarters, and at Marshall Space Flight Center, planetary scientist Sarah Noble recently accepted a civil service scientist position, split between Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA Headquarters.  Sarah and I talked about her career at LPSC in March 2010; her most recent publication is:

Noble S. K., Keller L. P, and Pieters C. M. (2011) Evidence of space weathering in regolith breccias II: Asteroidal regolith breccias. Meteoritics & Planetary Science Vol 45, issue 12, 2007–2015.

Niebur: Sarah, when did you first know that you were interested in space science?

Noble: I decided when I was 10 that I wanted to be an astronaut.…  [when] I got to college, the only career path with space in it was aerospace engineering.  So, I went for that.  I spent about a year [at the University of Minnesota] as an engineering major, realized I was not an engineer.  It’s just not my personality….  So, I started looking through the course catalog [thinking], “What else can I be?”  I ran into geology and it looked interesting.  So, I switched majors without ever having taking a geology class. 

Niebur: Wow.  That was brave.

Noble: It was brave, but it worked out well. Maybe two years later, I was going to be a junior, when one of my professors told me, “You know, Sarah, there’s this whole field of geology called planetary geology.” …. That year, he was the geology professor.  He had the lunar slides come in and that was great.  All of a sudden then, he kept feeding me information about things like internships and stuff.  So, I ended up with an internship at LPI with Gary Lofgren.

Niebur:  [When you later went to graduate school at Brown University,] who did you work with?

Noble: Carle Pieters.

Niebur: That’s a common thread for quite a few of the women scientists I’m interviewing, actually. 

Noble:  Amazing how that works out.  I don’t think it’s coincidence. 

Niebur: Would you say she was a good mentor?  What do you think really helped you decide to continue in planetary science after your Ph.D.? 

Noble:  Well, for one thing, she’s a good role model.  I mean, she’s been there and done that and was doing it back when she was the only woman in the room.  So, it was sort of comforting to see that you can have that kind of career, be successful, and be respected in the community the way that she is.  As an advisor, she was–I always say she always would give you just almost enough rope to hang yourself.  She was very sort of hands off, but she was always there.  If you asked her to help, she was right there to help you.  Her door was always open.  You could always go in and talk to her anytime.  But she wasn’t on your back all the time.  She wasn’t checking up on you.  She gave you the chance to be independent and figure things out on your own, and then had her little safety net in case you couldn’t.  So, it was sort of perfect.  That was exactly what I needed in an advisor. 

Niebur:  Nice.  Did she encourage you to go to conferences?  Brown students seem to come early to conferences and present.

Noble:  Yes, absolutely.  This’ll be, I think, my 13th LPSC in a row.  Haven’t missed one since I … presented my intern work as a senior in college.

Niebur:  Let’s go back and talk about the GSRP [Graduate Student Research Program, now the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, NESSF] for a minute.  Were you encouraged to write a GSRP, or did you decide that this was an idea that you wanted to do?

Noble:  Carle really encouraged it.  Some of the projects that I was working on just happened to mesh really well.  Carle does remote sensing, and I was interested in actually looking at the samples and understanding why the spectra look the way they do from the physical characteristics of the sample.  Lindsay [Keller], my GSRP advisor, does TEM/SEM work…. Early on in my graduate career, she introduced me to him, and we started sort of working together.  We thought this would be a really great way to work that from both ends. 

Niebur:  So you were working with someone at a different institution.  What do you think that gave you in terms of developing your career and your capability as a scientist?

Noble:  One thing it gives you is a lot of networking, because now I knew people at both places and stuff.  And, I mean, obviously it was a leg up for getting a postdoc, because you already have a working relationship with them.  It’s useful to see how other places operate.  I think, you know, you spend six years in grad school, and I know how Brown operates.  I know the politics at Brown.  But, going someplace else gave me an opportunity, particularly to see how things worked at a NASA Center, which was important to me. 

Niebur:  Immediately after grad school, though, you didn’t take the postdoc route.  What factored into your decision [to become a GSA AAAS Congressional Science Fellow]?

Noble:  I have always sort of been into policy.  I actually minored in political science as an undergrad.  As I was going through graduate school, I had heard about this program that AAAS runs that brings Ph.D. scientists to the Hill for a year to be exposed to Congress and what goes on and how it all works, and to provide scientists to Congress…. I had a postdoc lined up, but my advisor was very understanding and happy to delay me for a year and give me a year to go and spend some time in Congress…..

I worked for the House Science Committee for the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.  I knew I wanted to do space policy.  The majority of fellows work for an individual office, but no individual office cares that much about space.  It wouldn’t have been more than 5 percent, 10 percent of my time in any office.  Even the big space offices don’t care that much about space.  There’s too many other things that they need to worry about.  It’s good.  You don’t really want your congressman spending all of their time thinking about space.  But that was what I wanted to do.  So, I went and worked directly for the committee.  So, all I did was space policy for the entire year.  As it turned out, I worked for the Democrat staff when Democrats were in the minority.  The Democratic staff of the space subcommittee of the science committee is one guy… He knows more about space policy than probably just about anybody else on the planet.  He was a really fabulous mentor.

Niebur: Was [going to JSC for your postdoc] a big adjustment after leaving Brown?  Brown and Johnson have totally different cultures, to say the least.

Noble: This is true.  It wasn’t a big adjustment from Brown.  It was a big adjustment from Congress.  It was really strange…. Things move at such a slower pace.  You don’t see results instantaneously.  You’re waiting months to make progress on things.  It’s just a different world.

Niebur: So, you’re done with Johnson, and then you were looking around again.  How far into your postdoc did you start looking around again?  These are temporary things, right? 

Noble:  They are.  I actually went into my postdoc knowing that if you do a NASA postdoc at a NASA Center, there is this opportunity to take a third year and go to Headquarters, which is what I ended up doing.  I knew that when I got there, and I knew that I wanted to do it….  I did various things at Headquarters.  I was helping out running review panels.  I was helping writing.  We were putting together the NASA Lunar Science Institute at the time, so I was helping get that all out.  You name it.  Other duties as assigned, as Jim Green would say. 

Niebur: You’ve had a lot of different opportunities in a relatively short time, and then you decided to settle at a NASA Center.  Was there anything particularly that led you to Marshall?

Noble: I knew I didn’t really want to teach.  I didn’t really want to go the faculty route.  And that pretty much leaves soft money or NASA [Ed. note: or a research institution like the Smithsonian Institution or JHU’s APL].

Niebur:  What’s the group like at Marshall?

Noble:  Well, it’s small but growing.  It’s kind of fun.  We’re sort of starting from scratch.  They don’t really do planetary [science] at Marshall.  They do science, but it’s mostly solar physics and earth science and other things.  They’ve never really done planetary, but they started getting very involved in the moon.  They looked around and they thought, “We don’t have anybody here who knows anything about the moon.  Maybe we should start working on that.”

And so, they brought in Barb [Barbara Cohen], and then Barb brought in me.  Now, we’ve got our little group.  We’ve got a postdoc and other folks.

Niebur:  What’s the biggest challenge?

Noble:  What is the biggest challenge?  Oh, there are many challenges.  Probably being isolated.  It’s just our little planetary group, you know, and our colloquium seminar [is] all about high-energy astrophysics and solar plasmas.  So, you do have to work to reach out to other people.  It’s nice to be able to come to conferences where people know what you’re talking about things.  But, it is a little isolating to be just a few of us there by ourselves….  I was so spoiled at JSC.  All of the equipment, the SEMs, the TEMs, you know, they had the microprobe …  They have an incredible array of equipment… we’re sort of working on that problem.  Barb is building her own lab, but that’s not going to help me because we do different things.  So, it is sort of frustrating if I just want a quick look at something under the SEM, I got to wait until my next trip to Houston, which might be in three months.  So, yes, it’s not ideal, but it can be done. 

Niebur:  That’s really interesting, because those things that you’re saying have a lot of commonalities with researchers at teaching colleges, for instance, or soft money institutions where the researchers are geographically spread out, like some of the PSI [Planetary Science Institute] scientists. You seem to have the same kind of things.  But really, I think that a lot of our generation is moving towards a more distributed model.  I don’t see us all clumping up in the same labs anymore.  So, there have got to be ways to make it work.

Noble:  Yes.

Niebur:  What would your advice be for someone who is now is graduate school and might have a policy bent, maybe would like to go take the political science classes or run the Graduate Student Association, get involved in local politics.  What would you advise them to look at or to consider?  Would you recommend going to Congress? 

Noble:  I would.  I had a great experience.  I think that if you can afford to take that year out of your life, economically and family wise, whatever, if you could spend a year and a half in D.C., I don’t think there’s a downside to it.  I got an incredible amount out of that experience.  It’s not for everybody.  But I think if you’re interested there’s not a downside to trying.

Since this interview, Sarah has left MSFC for a new position in Washington, D.C., and the MSFC group has been joined by Renee Weber, who was the lead author of Seismic Detection of the Lunar Core in Science just a couple weeks ago.  Sarah says, “I have once again returned to DC where I now have somehow maneuvered myself into a split position between NASA HQ and NASA GSFC.  I am excited to have returned to HQ and to have the opportunity to continue to grow my career there and to hopefully have a positive impact on the planetary community.   This unique position though, also allows me to go to Goddard a couple of days a week and continue doing science.  It’s the best of both worlds.”

Thanks, Sarah!

Dr. Noble 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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