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Dr. Barbara Cohen: a renaissance woman who contributes broadly

March 15, 2012

Dr. Barbara Cohen is aImage planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, AL. Barb has a B.S. in Geology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a Ph.D. in Planetary Sciences from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL). She is an expert in the geochronology and geochemistry of meteorites and serves as the project scientist for the US nodes of the International Lunar Network.  Barb has been to Antarctica twice as part of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program, driven the Mars Exploration Rovers around Mars, and even has an asteroid named after her (6816 Barbcohen)!!!  Barb is currently in the process of building a new flight instrument and a new noble-gas laboratory at MSFC.

As a current grad student at LPL, I was eager to interview Barb for the 51 Women in Planetary Science series.*

Building a new lab or a flight instrument is no easy feat!  Tell me about your noble-gas laboratory at MSFC and the new instrument you are developing. 

I couldn’t be more excited about this point in my career and having the opportunity and ability to build these. The MSFC Noble Gas Research Laboratory (MNGRL, say it out loud) is a highly-sensitive mass spectrometer for measuring noble-gas isotopes, which is a well-established technique for providing detailed temperature-time histories of rocks and meteorites. In the MNGRL lab, we use Ar-Ar radioactive dating to find the formation age of rocks and meteorites. We also plan to measure Ar/Kr/Ne cosmic-ray exposure ages to understand when the meteorites were launched from their parent planets. Though the mass spectrometer was purchased as-is, the hardware to heat and purify the samples had to be built and calibrated in house. It was a difficult task because nobody in Huntsville has experience with a scientific lab of this type, under ultra-high vacuum, to study geologic samples. It’s taking longer than I envisioned, but it is moving forward and we hope to study our first samples this summer.

The MNGRL lab is great for small samples of meteorites and lunar rocks, but it takes up a whole room and a lot of power. Because of this, I’m developing an instrument that will do essentially the same thing – K-Ar radiometric dating – but in a compact instrument that can fit on a lander or rover – taking the lab to the planet. The Potassium-Argon Laser Experiment (KArLE) uses components from MSL and I hope to be able to combine them in such a way we can get reasonable ages of surfaces. Wouldn’t it be great to know how old the ancient Martian crust is without struggling to get a sample return mission? This work is funded by the Planetary Instrument Definition and Development Program at NASA.

Just reading about you on the MSFC website makes me tired.  You are one busy lady!  How do you stay on top of everything?      

When I figure it out, I’ll let you know! I enjoy being busy and having multiple activities going on simultaneously. I like feeling that I contribute broadly. But it can get overwhelming sometimes. I’ve had to stop doing some things I used to enjoy, like elementary school outreach, because I choose to take on other responsibilities. I have to be conscientious about saying no if I really can’t deliver on something. I’ve gotten more strategic at saying no. 🙂

Let’s go back to the beginning.  How did you first get interested in planetary science?

I wasn’t really that interested in science growing up, but I was always that annoying overachiever in school because I enjoyed learning. I loved language, writing, music, and art. Throughout middle school and high school, I was completely engaged with a program called Olympics of the Mind (now Odyssey of the Mind), which involved creative solving of complex problems. I think these experiences helped me become a problem-solver and critical thinker, which to me are some of the most important skills in science.

I did watch Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” with my family. We watched several episodes, but I only clearly remember one: the one with Voyager exploring Jupiter and Saturn. The beauty of the planets and the adventure that seemed to come with exploring them blew me away. It wasn’t until several years later that I made the decision to pursue science as a career, but I think that “Cosmos” planted the seed.

How did you decide to major in Geology at SUNY Stony Brook and then go for a PhD in Planetary Sciences at the U of A? 

After having an amazing chemistry class in high school, I decided that I wanted to pursue science as a career. I have a vague notion that I wanted it to be about the planets, but I didn’t really know what that meant or how to make it happen. I went to the only state university with an astronomy program (Stony Brook) but was disappointed when my intro to astronomy class didn’t talk about the planets. I asked the professor and he pointed me to the Geology department. I was just plain lucky that Stony Brook also had an excellent geology department with a long heritage of working on Apollo samples. My undergraduate advisor, Don Davis, gave me a project to map lineaments on Europa – a somewhat tedious task in itself, but one that opened my eyes to the detailed landforms of another world. Then I worked in experimental geology for three years and loved every minute.

After spending time in the labs of the Stony Brook scientists, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and that path required a PhD. I was able to apply to some really great programs and chose the U of A for its combination of breadth in the faculty (again fortunate, since I didn’t settle on a project for some time) and apparent work/life balance among the students. It sounds lame, but that’s the truth.

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

The most challenging thing for me was learning how to formulate new problems in science from scratch. I’d always been good at problem-solving, and when someone like a faculty member gave me an idea to work on, I was comfortable attacking it.  But for a long time I despaired of generating new ideas on my own. It caused me a lot of angst. I don’t really know how I overcame this except pure perseverance – the more I worked, the more I saw interconnections, and ideas came. I’m fortunate now to be able to “pay it forward” and help provide ideas to others.

The most rewarding thing about graduate school was the networking. LPL grad students were a close-knit group who stayed in touch as they went on to successful careers. It was an enormous support to me to share my everyday successes and setbacks with people who had been through the same thing and wanted me to succeed as well. My grad school network still makes up the backbone of my career – partly because I enjoy them and partly because so many are now prominent in the community.

Did you do a postdoc?  If so, where and why?  Was postdoc life different than grad school life?  

Yes, I had three postdoc positions. My first two postdocs were opportunities to try working on something new without fear and to learn new skills. I worked with Larry Taylor at the University of Tennessee and Klaus Keil at the University of Hawaii on lunar rocks and ureilite meteorites. While I was in Hawaii, my partner got a permanent job in New Mexico, and I needed to move there. Rhian Jones & Adrian Brearley at the University of New Mexico were kind to take me on as a part-time postdoc until I could bring in my own grant funding and become a research scientist there.

How did you get involved in the MER mission?  

While I was a research scientist at UNM, Tim McCoy at the Smithsonian asked me if I was applying for the MER Participating Scientist Program. I replied, no, of course not, what do I know about robots and Mars? And he said, you use robots all the time – microprobes, SEMs, etc. and you know about impact rocks and there’s tons of craters on Mars. Something clicked, and I applied and amazingly was accepted. I can’t say enough good about the MER team – they are so respectful of one another, and so interested in the success of everyone on the team. Also, the team is structured to fully integrate scientists and engineers into rover operations. I discovered a deep love for spacecraft operations and became involved in multiple roles, which I still act in to this day.

How did you end up at MSFC?  What is your role there? 

During the Constellation program, NASA was going back to the Moon. Though I work on a variety of topics, I love the Moon a lot, and was super-excited to have the chance to help the nation love the Moon, too. MSFC was the program manager for the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program (LPRP) and several other lunar surface engineering activities, but didn’t have a planetary scientist on staff. I came to NASA in 2007 specifically to be a bridge between science and engineering, extending my scientific knowledge and MER experience to support human exploration planning. I worked in LPRP to bring Constellation engineers what they needed from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and its companion, LCROSS.

Since then I’ve worked on Lunar Robotic Landers, Lunar Mapping and Modelling, Desert-RATS, and other human exploration activities. I also serve on Agency activities that need expertise on all potential human destinations, including the Moon, near-earth asteroids, Phobos and Deimos, and Mars. It does take a lot of energy and often seems repetitive to do study after study, because human exploration doesn’t have a “Decadal survey”-type roadmap. But I surely enjoy these activities more than, say, teaching at a university. I am glad to help.

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

I was fortunate to join the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) teams in 2003-04 and 2006-07. Both times we recovered about a thousand samples for the US collection. I get the majority of the samples I work on (lunar, martian, asteroidal) in the form of meteorites, so it really is an important community service to recover more samples. Being out on an ice sheet stretching horizon to horizon, that maybe no other human has ever been on, and finding a space rock that nobody has ever seen before, is an indescribable high. It’s tough to live out there under challenging conditions, but hundreds of people work hard to make sure you are safe, warm, and well-fed. I hope I do get to join the team again.

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

I have to make sure I make time for other activities, even to the point of putting them on my calendar at work. It’s common for me to think I don’t have the time, because I see that the more time I put into science, the more reward I get. But I have to say to myself, are kittens going to die because I didn’t finish this today?  Then go spend some time doing something else, like exercise, pottery, rowing, playing board games, hiking, reading, playing with the cat, etc. My partner Robert and I also been more conscientious about taking “real” vacations – no computers, internet, phones. What a luxury.

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

To me, the two most important things are perseverance and self-confidence. I’ve always been stubborn, so that’s good, but I was in grad school and as a postdoc, and even sometimes now, I have a powerful impostor syndrome, which is common among high achievers. I’ve frequently said that I wish someone would just tell it to me straight: that I am not any good at this, and I should find another career. Well, the thing I have learned is that nobody’s going to pull any punches in this community. If they don’t think you’re good, for sure they are going to tell you. If they haven’t told you, then you are good enough and smart enough, and you need to keep telling yourself that!

Thank you, Barb!

*Personal aside by Kat: I met Barb when I was an undergraduate presenting at LPSC.  I told a mentor that I was interested in going to LPL for grad school, and immediately the person said: “Let’s find Barb Cohen!  You MUST talk to her!”  Sure enough, we found Barb, and as we talked, she made a great impression I’ll never forget.  A “lunatic” at heart, she has a contagious enthusiasm for life.  Thanks for encouraging me, Barb!  I know you’ve encouraged many others.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Myriam Telus permalink
    March 16, 2012 1:08 pm

    Great interview!! Thanks!

  2. Catherine Neish permalink
    March 16, 2012 9:23 am

    Barb, I chose the U of A for the exact same reason! I don’t think it sounds lame. 🙂

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