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Julie Castillo-Rogez: Keep your eyes open for opportunities

February 24, 2011

Julie Castillo-Rogez is a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. She graduated in geology and geophysics from Rennes University, France. She came to JPL as a NASA postdoc working for the Cassini-Huygens mission. She is now part of the Planetary Ices Group and of the Ice Physics Laboratory, which she co-founded in 2007.

Recent Papers

McCarthy, C. M., Castillo-Rogez, J. C., Planetary ices attenuation properties, Science of Solar System Ices, Eds. M. S. Gudipati, J. Castillo-Rogez, in press.

McCord, T. B., Castillo-Rogez, J. C., Meeting Report – Thermodynamic evolution of small ice-silicate bodies, EoS (peer-reviewed), in press.

McCord, T. B., Castillo-Rogez, J. C., Rivkin, A. S., Ceres: Its Origin, Evolution and Structure and Dawn’s Potential Contribution, Space Science Reviews, special issue on the Dawn Mission, doi:10.1007/s11214-010-9729-9  (in press).

Robutel, P., Rambaux, N., Castillo-Rogez, J. (2011) Analytical description of physical librations of Saturnian coorbital satellites Janus and Epimetheus, Icarus 211, 758-769, doi: 10.1016/j.icarus.2010.09.014.

Castillo-Rogez, J. C., Lunine, J. I. (2010) Evolution of Titan’s rocky core constrained by Cassini observations, submitted to Geophysical Research Letters 37, L20205, doi: doi:10.1029/2010GL044398.

1.  What first inspired you to study space science?

I am part of the generation who saw the images returned by the Voyager spacecrafts and I became totally hooked in astronomy at that time.  I was offered Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos, and that was another good reason to become very interested in planetary science.  However, I had never envisioned that I would one day work in that field; this was too remote from my social background. I was the first in my family to go to college. So aiming to study beyond a Bachelor’s degree (technician level in France) was already viewed by my parents as a very ambitious dream. Becoming a research scientist was totally out of the picture.

I did my undergrad and grad studies in geology, a more “down-to-Earth” field. Then I was able to pursue a PhD in seismology in the Earth and Planetary geodynamic Department in Nantes University. I was not so fond of seismology though. The head of the lab at the time, Christophe Sotin (now at JPL) was involved in the Cassini mission, and the lab was regularly involved in the organization of international meetings. I met my future postdoc adviser at a Cassini Project Science Group in Nantes. I visited California a few months later for an interview at JPL and one at the seismology group at Berkeley. I really liked JPL and the Pasadena area. I came back for good right after I graduated the following year.

2.  Where did you postdoc and for how long?

My postdoc was at JPL, as a NASA postdoc, but not in science. I was very lucky to get involved in the science planning and operations of the Cassini-Huygens mission three years prior to its orbit insertion in Saturn’s system. Thus, I did engineering work for a while, and my mind was set: I would do engineering for the rest of my life. But my postdoc ended at the time the Cassini data came in, and it was not possible to stay within the Cassini Project. Since I had stopped doing research for a while, it was more difficult to find another postdoc in the United States. This is where a miracle occurred. Dennis Matson, the Cassini Project scientist at the time, hired me as a postdoctoral researcher to work on the geophysics and geology of small satellites. This was a life-defining moment. First Dennis introduced me to a great group of people: Torrence Johnson, Jonathan Lunine, and several others, and we got started with developing pluridisciplinary research about small icy satellites. And then I met Tom McCord, and I got more involved in the research about small bodies, by looking at the processes common to small outer planet satellites and large water-rich asteroids.

Working with senior scientists who have been deeply involved in so many missions is such a great experience. They can effortlessly connect the dots between pieces of information from very different fields and put in perspective new observations and theoretical results.

3.   A special question for you Julie:  Do you have any advice for scientists coming from Europe to the U.S.?

I did not come to the U.S. from “Europe,” I came from a small region of Brittany. That’s right, when I went to Los Angeles in 2000 it was the first time I ever travelled by plane! You can imagine the sense of wonder when I arrived in L.A. About ten years later, I still feel the same sense of wonder. Of course, working for NASA and at JPL where space exploration is making history on an every day basis is fascinating (for example a few weeks ago with the visit of Tempel one by Stardust-NExt

A major difference between the US and France is that it is possible to do engineering work without a specific engineering degree. A Ph.D diploma has value outside the research world. In France, things are more compartmentalized: one has to get an engineering degree in order to do engineering work. France is also much built on the system of “high schools” (more or less equivalent to the polytechnic schools in the US). One has to graduate from the right school in order to work in space engineering.

Another important difference between the US and Europe is the possibility for youth to become involved in space research starting in high school. I have met grad students who have already worked in many NASA centers thanks to summer internships.

On a different topic, I regret not taking English classes as soon as I arrived at JPL, when I had a lot more spare time. I came with a poor background in English. I definitely recommend to foreign scientists to take English classes if they want to be able to properly communicate their work to all types of public.

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

I would say that they have to be very motivated and willing to go the extra mile. Like many other scientists in the field, I have volunteered many hours doing space-related activities outside my regular science-focused agenda. I have volunteered to take notes at meetings, organized a large number of conference sessions, workshops. This is necessary in order to meet people and gain some visibility.

There are a huge number of opportunities (e.g., Summer internships) in the United States to become involved in space-related activities of all types. Students should keep their eyes open for these opportunities. For example the call for this year’s Planetary Science Summer School has just been announced, and I recommend it, this is a great experience.

Also, students should follow the activities of groups advocating for space science. I am thinking, for example, of the assessment groups appointed by NASA (e.g., OPAG, SBAG, MEPAG, VexAG, CAPTEM). Follow what is going on, and participate in those meetings. Besides, most of them can be attended via Webex, which limits time and money spent on travel. By the way, I want to take the opportunity to thanks those group leaders who make sure Webex is always an option, because it spares a lot of time spent away from home.

Students should also be aware of what’s going on outside the specific field they are involved in.  At large meetings, they should join in focused discussion groups, attend a session on a topic not related to their specific research, etc. in order to develop a broad-based knowledge of space and Earth science. For example, in the field of material physics, there is a lot of work published in the Earth science literature that is directly relevant to planetary geophysics, but too infrequently referenced by our community.

5.  What are some of the challenges and rewards of being involved in missions?

The first and most important reward is to be in the room where new observations are being downlinked. I remember a downlink from Cassini observations of Iapetus, with Bonnie Buratti and others discussing in real time images sent by Cassini, pure awesomeness.

Being on a mission project is like being part of a big family. This is probably the best way to create links within the community. Even if I am not in Cassini anymore, I still have contacts with a lot of folks from that group, and I am very happy to see that Cassini-Huygens has been such a successful project.

Obviously, it is easier to become part of a mission on its way to its target as a postdoc or grad student, rather than being involved in a future mission. I would certainly recommend to student that they strive to be involved in science definition teams and mission proposals whenever they can. However, they have to bear in mind that the odds to be part of a mission that will be flown one day are small. I do not mean to be discouraging, but mission project is the bread and butter for a relatively small number of people. Fortunately, this is not the only way to be involved in space exploration. Like other female scientists noted, being in this field involves some disappointments, but shifting path may lead to even more interesting activities, provided that one is flexible enough. And also we are the sum of our parts. All bits of experience are meaningful and will prove useful in the end. I regularly rely on the background I developed in seismology, almost ten years ago…

6.   What do you do for fun?

I have a beautiful family, so my time outside work is all about making sure my guys are happy!

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

When I was a postdoc I used to travel a lot, especially between Europa and the United States. When my son was born, I decided to stop traveling, which is a risky choice in this field. Thus I have developed a number of strategies to compensate for my limited participation in major meetings. First, I invest a lot of time in preparing for the meetings I do attend, making sure that I will be able to meet with collaborators and colleagues, that I am aware of the meetings organized outside the main conference, and I develop a week long schedule accounting for all the presentations and meetings I want to attend. I have declined a number of opportunities to participate in foreign meetings, but I have developed very strong collaborations with several foreign scientists who are willing to visit on a regular basis.

I remember talking with a sponsor about the fact that I did not present the sponsored work as frequently as I should, and was wondering how he felt about that. Well, he told me that no one expected me to travel at the expense of a normal family life, and that the most important thing was to get the work peer-reviewed and published. Thus, basically time that should be spent on traveling is actually used for publication writing.

Like others I multitask a lot. I can tell you I have spent a lot of time with a sleeping kid on one arm and a computer in the other hand. Wherever I go, I always have an article to read, or a manuscript to mark-up.


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

The most significant opportunity that was given me as a postdoc (besides the privilege to work with Matson and co.) was to become involved in the early stage of the development of the Ice Physics Laboratory. After a couple of year doing models of icy satellites, I lost interest in that research because of the serious lack of key input parameters for the topics I am interested in. What is the point of a geophysical model if it is not even possible to make an educated guess about the model input parameters? Since my background was in Earth science, I was used to work with more concrete objects. So I just thought I would stop theoretical work for a while and go get these parameters I badly needed.

I had not done any experimental work before, so it was almost like starting a thesis from scratch, with a significant learning curve this time. Of course, looking back, I have no regrets. But we got started with the lab at the same time as my son as born and my husband was on the capture teams for a couple Earth missions. So it was a challenging time. We’ve been able to breathe again after the lab work and missions got funded.  Obviously I did not progress in that area on my own. The Ice Physics Lab was a great experience as far as teamwork goes, with brilliant people (you can find the team here).

I was very lucky that JPL gave me the opportunity to start something brand new (the project was supported by internal research and technology development funds), because when doing lab work the return on investment can take a very long time. The key was also to remain involved in a number of activities: a bit of mission project work as well as more focus on asteroid geophysics.

I have also had a number of opportunities to be involved in a variety of projects: a lot of editorial work, the participation in white papers to the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, in the development of the Small Bodies Exploration Roadmap, various working groups, etc. I like very much the idea of being part of a community sharing the same interest for space exploration.

Thanks for your advice Julie!  And I will note that Julie was an excellent PI Mentor at my Planetary Science Summer School last year, just one of many examples of her going the extra mile :).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. julie permalink
    February 24, 2011 6:43 pm

    Thanks much to you and Kelsi! It’s a great pleasure to be part of this series!

  2. February 24, 2011 12:30 pm

    Thanks, Julie!


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