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Nancy Chabot: loves being part of a team and learning new things!

June 20, 2011

Nancy Chabot is a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.  Nancy has a B.A. in Physics from Rice University and a Ph.D. in Planetary Sciences from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL).  She is an expert in the study of meteorites, particularly as an experimental cosmochemist. In fact, Nancy loves meteorites so much she has gone to Antarctica 5 times as part of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program!  Nancy is also the Instrument Scientist for the Mercury Dual Imagine System (MDIS) onboard the MESSENGER spacecraft, currently orbiting Mercury. Most recently, Nancy published a paper titled “Partitioning behavior at 9 GPa in the Fe-S system and implications for planetary evolution” in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Kat Gardner-Vandy, a graduate student at the LPL, interviewed Nancy for the 51 Women in Planetary Science series via email and over the phone.

Please tell me a little about your recent paper and the results of your experiments. 

The results of that recent paper were actually very surprising to me. I had done a number of experiments on partitioning in the Fe-S system at 1 atm, and I expected that solid metal/liquid metal partitioning should be similar at higher pressures. I expected to do these experiments at 9 GPa, compare them to the 1 atm data, and conclude that pressure didn’t have much of an effect. Since I am experienced with these types of experiments, they were fairly easy to do and I figured I should just do them, even if I didn’t expect a very exciting result. Well, we actually found a lot of differences between the 1 atm and 9 GPa data, which was a real surprise to me! We don’t fully understand all the differences and why they are occurring, but the results do have a lot of implications for how to apply 1 atm data to the evolution of larger planetary bodies, like core formation or core crystallization.

I noticed that the author list on your paper represents quite a geographical range!  Tell me about collaborating with other scientists in your research.    

This project did involve a wide range of locations! The experiments were conducted at the University of New Mexico, electron microprobe analysis was conducted at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and laser ablation ICP-MS analysis was conducted at the University of Maryland. The project also used expertise from scientists at NASA Johnson Space Center and involved an undergraduate student of mine, who has since started graduate school. This project wouldn’t have been possible without this wide range of people willing to be involved. Experimental and analytical facilities are scattered all over the place, and I’m not at an institution that has them in-house. Collaboration has always been a way of life for me to get done the type of experimental science I do. I enjoy having collaborators, and they each brought a lot to this project.

Let’s go back in time.  How did you first get interested in planetary science?  Did you ever dream you’d be a scientist at APL who’s traveled to Antarctica 5 times?!

I was always a “space geek” as I call it growing up: I loved Star Wars, watched Star Trek with my dad, did school projects on the constellations. When I was applying to college, I decided I wanted to leave California where I grew up and find a good, affordable school that wasn’t too big. Rice fit the bill, but they didn’t have a large variety of majors.  I picked Physics because it seemed like a good way to do space science as a career. I had no idea planetary science even existed until I applied for graduate school. In fact, I applied to quite a few graduate schools in astronomy and only found the planetary science program at the University of Arizona when I was looking up the astronomy program. But once I visited Arizona for the planetary sciences program, I was hooked. I loved the idea of studying space science but not being limited by what you could learn with a telescope. Here was space science of objects that spacecraft could visit, land on, bring back samples, some of which we have samples of as meteorites.

The whole Antarctic experience was one I never dreamed I would do. In fact, I remember meeting a scientist at the Meteoritical Society Meeting when I was in grad school and being fascinated by his recent ANSMET trip. He told me I should go, too. I thought: really, me? So I applied and got to go on an ANSMET trip my last year in graduate school. I loved it. When the postdoc job opened up to work with ANSMET, I didn’t hesitate to apply, and I was so excited to get the job. Being a part of 5 ANSMET teams is something that I’ll always treasure.

What was the most challenging aspect of graduate school, and what was the best thing about graduate school? 

I really enjoyed graduate school. Some of that is due to my huge interest in space science, and a lot is due to the program at LPL. I really appreciated how LPL encouraged me to get involved in different research projects in my first years, since I have wide spread interests in many aspects of planetary science, and I really knew very little about any of it. I came to realize that I really enjoyed being in the lab and doing lab work, and my advisor Mike Drake is another reason that I had such a good graduate school experience. Also, graduate students at LPL were a very supportive and fun bunch and I’m happy to have met so many great people in graduate school who I now see regularly at conferences.

How was postdoc life different than graduate school for you? 

I did two postdocs, one at Johnson Space Center as part of a National Research Council program [now the NASA Postdoctoral Program] and then one at ANSMET.  For me, postdoc life was much more challenging than graduate school. I really disliked the lack of stability and uncertainty associated with not “having a real job.” I also felt at times that I was easily dismissed by others because I was “just” a postdoc. I also disliked just doing my own research in the lab and felt very isolated. I went into space science to be part of the larger collaboration of exploration, and just doing my own research felt like I wasn’t a part of something larger. Getting the ANSMET postdoc position was a turning point for me; I could continue my own research but also be a part of a much larger project, and that project made meteorite samples available to scientists around the world! I really valued being a part of something bigger than any one person could accomplish by themselves. Now at APL and working on the MESSENGER mission, I feel the same way. I was attracted to space science by the exploration of the unknown, and I’m really happy to have a job where I get to contribute to these larger projects.

How did you end up at APL?  Would you like to stay there? 

With the uncertainty associated with a postdoc position, I really came to want stability in my life. I applied for a lot of jobs and I didn’t even get short listed. It was depressing. I came to think about leaving planetary science and getting a job in some other field because I wanted more stability and certainty. APL is one of the places I applied. The ad for APL listed a bunch of things that I wasn’t qualified in, like experience with remote sensing of Mars or the Moon, but it also said it wanted planetary scientists with leadership ability. I figured that being the science lead for field teams in Antarctica had to have at least met that qualification and I applied. The interview went well and I got the job. But, I had to learn a lot. I still always have to learn a lot it seems, but I enjoy that. APL is a great place – I’ve found lots of opportunities to get involved with a large range of planetary science projects. There is always something new being developed at APL that forces me to research and learn something that I previously knew very little about.

I know you as an experimental cosmochemist, but you are also on the MESSENGER team.  What is your role as an Instrument Scientist, and how did you get involved in the mission?  

As MDIS Instrument Scientist, my overall role is to make sure that the images acquired by MDIS meet the science goals of the MESSENGER mission. It is very different than my expertise as an experimental cosmochemist, but I really appreciate the opportunity that APL gave me to have this job. I’ve had to learn a ton about the MDIS instrument, how it is commanded, how spacecraft operations occur, about Mercury science, image processing and analysis, planetary surface geology, and much more. I’m still learning. I became involved in the MESSENGER mission by being at APL and expressing my interest to help in any way possible. Someone took me up on that offer and I did small tasks for the public website and then to support PDS documentation. I was happy to help however possible and make a contribution to this exciting project of the first Mercury orbiter ever. Those small tasks led to bigger assignments and eventually to becoming the MDIS Instrument Scientist. I think with a lot of projects, if you’re genuinely willing to help out and get involved, you eventually have more and more opportunities to make larger and larger contributions.

Please tell us about searching for meteorites in Antarctica!  Will you go back again? 

Searching for meteorites in Antarctica is an amazing experience. I have no immediate plans to go back, but I would like to be on another ANSMET team, possibly in a few years if they’ll have me, and I can find the time.

What has been the most effective way for you to maintain balance in your life? 

I think that maintaining balance can be really tricky – not just for planetary scientists but for everyone. I think that you have to realize that it is important and make time for it and value it. It is not something that will just happen. I’m a big believer in being proactive and trying to make your life the way you want it to be. I wouldn’t sit around and hope that a graduate degree and a great job in planetary science would just fall in my lap – the rest of my life isn’t any different. I try to make what I want in my life happen rather than things happening to me. I think by being proactive, I’ve managed to find balance, but it also requires constant effort to keep that balance.

I think everyone can struggle with getting things done.  For me, I have to schedule time on the calendar for things. I’m such a scheduler!  For example, in grad school, when I was writing my dissertation, I made myself write a paragraph a day.  Sometimes it only took 15 minutes, sometimes it took longer.  But by the end of the week, you have 5 paragraphs!  At APL, I often schedule myself time in the lab so I know I will do it and everyone else knows not to book meetings at that time.  Or, I’ll just stay home to work and turn my email off for several hours.

What advice do you have for undergrads, grads, and/or young scientists? 

Overall, have a good idea of what is really important to you and be flexible with the rest of the details.

Thank you, Nancy!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. shanna saporito-pickens permalink
    March 14, 2012 12:13 am

    Would like to contact Nancy Chabot. Interesting information in this interview/post…
    I have a few questions.

  2. June 20, 2011 2:48 pm

    ANSMET looks SO AWESOME. Thank you for this great interview, Kat and Nancy!


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