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Britney Schmidt: Work on what you love

April 5, 2011

Britney Schmidt at McMurdoDr. Britney Schmidt is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Geophysics of the University of Texas at Austin (UTIG) working on ice penetrating radar to study geophysical evolution of ices on Europa and in Antarctica. She received her Ph.D. studying large asteroids with observations and models, especially potentially icy asteroids from UCLA. 

Her most recent publications include studies of Triton, Ceres, Vesta and Themis: 

  • Bauer, James M., Buratti, Bonnie J., Li, Jian-Yang, Mosher, Joel A., Hicks, Michael D., Schmidt, Britney E., Goguen, Jay D. (2010) Direct Detection of Seasonal Changes on Triton with Hubble Space Telescope, The Astrophysical Journal Letters 723, L49-L52.
  • Rivkin, Andrew S., Li, Jian-Yang, Milliken, Ralph E., Lim, Lucy F., Lovell, Amy J., Schmidt, Britney E., McFadden, Lucy A., Cohen, Barbara A. (2011) The Surface Composition of Ceres, Space Science Reviews, doi:10.1007/s11214-010-9677-4.
  • Li, Jian-Yang, McFadden, Lucy A., Thomas, Peter C., Mutchler, Max J.; Parker, Joel Wm., Young, Eliot F., Russell, Christopher T., Sykes, Mark V., Schmidt, Britney E. (2010) Photometric mapping of Asteroid (4) Vesta’s southern hemisphere with Hubble Space Telescope, Icarus 208, 238-251, doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2010.02.008.
  • Castillo-Rogez, Julie C., Schmidt, B. E. (2010) Geophysical evolution of the Themis family parent body, Geophysical Research Letters 37, CiteID L10202, doi:10.1029/2009GL042353.

Dr. Julie Castillo, JPL, interviewed Dr. Schmidt by email for our series, 51 Women in Planetary Science.

Q. How did you get started?

A. I was pursuing an English Major during my undergrad studies at University of Arizona, but I didn’t feel challenged by what I was learning, and so during that period I tried all types of topics I was interested in: sociology, political science, Planetary Science, theater.  I had originally thought I wanted to work for Spin magazine writing about rock bands.  Then I had a class with Bob Brown from the Lunar Planetary Lab at UofA. I was fascinated and started becoming more involved in the field of planetary science by working as a preceptor (like a student teaching assistant for the class). This led to being invited to help develop a planetary ices laboratory with Dr. Brown, who convinced me I could do well as a scientist and prompted me to consider pursuing a career in planetary science. At the time I was studying possible D/H fractionation of comets, and I used to work all the time, including weekends. It was a labor of love.

Q. And then?

A. Then I transferred to majoring in physics and got interested in early Solar system processes.  I started working in another laboratory at UofA about the interaction of nebular gases and metals in nebular phase prior to accretion.

During the same period, I was a summer intern working at JPL with Bonnie Buratti using telescopes to observe seasonal changes on Triton. Bob Brown had hooked me up with Bonnie in part so that I would have a female role model in science.  My interactions with her showed me that it really was possible to succeed as a woman in a non-traditional field. Bonnie played a huge part in my career choices by showing that one can have a very active professional life, have a family, be a great scientist, and be nice to people.

As an undergrad, I was also involved in a research project studying Europa’s lithosphere with Terry Hurford, which led to my first publication. This had aroused my interested in ice geophysics. I wanted to pursue my grad studies on that topic, but this was when the Galileo mission came to an end, and the funding got scarce. It was a difficult time to get started on Europa.

Largely because of my diverse skill set from observing and using remote sensing, as well as exposure to meteorites and nebular chemistry, I ended up being offered a graduate student research position by Christopher Russell at UCLA. Prof. Russell wanted someone who had experience with observations and who was knowledgeable in geophysics, especially of relevance to asteroids, to work for the Dawn mission. By happy chance, this was exactly my profile!

During my grad studies, I tried to stay close to the Europa community. I volunteered to serve on the Jupiter Europa Orbiter Science Definition Team by taking notes during their meetings.  At the end of my thesis, I had a lot of contacts with that community, and especially with Don Blankenship, for whom I now work.  I was lucky to have an advisor in grad school who gave me flexibility, and let me expand my thesis in several directions so that I could develop a broad-based skill set, and get more experience with geophysical studies on top of being involved in asteroid observations.

Q. What are your current projects?

A. My main focus is currently is on the formation of chaos terrain on Europa. This involves comparisons with Earth’s cryosphere. This was my first year of learning to study terrestrial glaciology as well, and I went with my team at UTIG to Antarctica for our field season.  We use a plethora of techniques to study the geophysical evolution of the ice and the sub glacial geology of Antarctica. My role has been to study Europa analogs, and will probably involve in the future studying fracture and water in terrestrial ices. I am hoping to go down again next year.

I am also interested in icy asteroid evolution and astrobiology, as well as the early history of Vesta.  Unfortunately I could not submit a proposal to the Dawn Participating Scientist Program because I was five months from finishing my Ph.D. at the time of the PSP proposal deadline. It’s a frustrating reality sometimes to be a young scientist and to have your progress seemingly slowed by external factors, but it’s important to keep moving forward.  I did end up finding a way to stay involved in Dawn: I’ve recently been appointed as the Science Team Liaison on the education and public out reach team, so I’m getting to stay close to the mission after all.

Q. Everything you have been doing has ended up in publications!

A. I’ve been really lucky to have great mentors and collaborators across a wide range of topics, so I’ve gotten to work on comets, asteroids, nebular chemistry, geophysics, and Triton & Europa.  It’s been rewarding to have these projects lead to publications, even if these developed over different timescales. In fact, one of the papers in review I’ve been collaborating on since I was an undergrad—about nine years after we started the experiments. In contrast, my first paper in graduate school about Pallas came out in 2009 in Science and took only about two years from getting the data until publication.

Q. What would be your recommendations to someone who wants to work in planetary science?

A. The most important thing that I have learned is to work on what you love so that all the time you spend on it has value: writing proposals and papers, getting proposals rejected, and spending all those hours working to understand the problem you’re trying to solve, and trying to get established in a new field can be daunting, but if you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work!

At the same time, you have to be flexible with your path to achieving your goals.  Don’t just follow the funding (though it’s important), develop skills that are useable for a variety of topics and be open about the objects you end up working on, while keeping your eyes on the end goal.

I first started thinking about Europa missions almost ten years ago, I was 20 when I figured out this is what I wanted to do. I am so excited about Europa, that it was worth taking a more circuitous path to getting to make a career working on it, like spending time during grad school volunteering for the Science Definition Team. My thesis project wasn’t what I envisioned when I was applying for grad school, but it allowed me to develop a skill set and a network that helped me to get where I am now, doing exactly what I always wanted to do. And along the way, I gained exposure I never would have had otherwise.  For a while, you may have to be a slightly different version of yourself than you imagined, but it’s definitely worth it in the end.

Another recommendation I would make is that it is important to develop good relationships with other people in the community. There are a lot of great people in planetary science! You will learn an incredible amount from these people, and eventually they will remember you for things like invited talks and getting involved in missions. Ways to be involved include for example participating in writing white papers, attending focus groups, and other service to the community.  It’s also vital to get out and meet people at meetings, read the literature and ask a lot of questions and good people will want to work with you.

I’m still really young and just starting out myself.  I think an important problem many young scientists face is to the “impostor syndrome”: starting off in the new field is intimidating. I try to remember to have confidence in myself and my abilities (but not too much). I find you have to think for yourself, not let other people choose directions for you. There are many parameters that can influence your choices: colleagues, other political and social forces, personal life. Know what you like and what you want to do, and figure out how to do it. Be humble—it’s important to be able to identify your own weaknesses and be open to new perspectives on your ideas, but don’t be afraid to be bold. Take some risks and make contacts with the right people. Have a goal and think for yourself, and you should come out ok.

Thanks, Britney, and thanks also to Julie for your work in this post!

Dr. Schmidt 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 planetary science women can join!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2011 1:53 pm

    “There are a lot of great people in planetary science! You will learn an incredible amount from these people, and eventually they will remember you for things like invited talks and getting involved in missions.”

    Britney is without a doubt one of these great people. I met her at the Great Planet Debate in August 2008 and learned so much about Pallas and Vesta from her presentation, a talk that completely changed my view of these two bodies. Thanks, Britney! You’re an inspiration!

    • April 5, 2011 10:51 pm

      I’m with Laurel on this. Britney is a tremendous inspiration and one of the great folks in the field.

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