Dr. Cari Corrigan: Internships can provide unexpected opportunities and connections
Dr. Cari Corrigan is the Curator of Antarctic Meteorites in the Mineral Sciences division of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She completed her B.S. and M.S. degrees in geology at Michigan State University and her Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University. Megan Elwood Madden talked with Dr. Corrigan by email for this entry in the 51+ Women in Planetary Science interview series.
Cari, it seems to me you have one of the coolest jobs in the world- studying and curating rocks from outer space. How and when did you become interested in planetary science and meteorites?
I was always interested in astronomy and the outdoors growing up, but, as with many of us in small, rural public school systems, I didn’t realize that there were real jobs that allowed people to study such specific things, like meteorites, for a living.
I took an Astronomy class as an undergrad and loved it, so I asked the professor what else he would recommend. He suggested a geology class, which I took and also loved. I met with him again, and he suggested combining them, and going into this thing we call Planetary Science! When I signed up to be a geology major a few months later, I was randomly assigned an advisor (Dr. Michael Velbel). When I told him my interests, he said that, coincidentally, I had stumbled into the office of the only person on campus who did anything planetary (he studies meteorites). I ended up doing an undergraduate research project with him, and later was awarded an internship at the LPI (Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston) studying meteorites with Mike Zolensky. That summer, I met my Masters co-advisor (Buck Sharpton), Ph.D. advisor (Ralph Harvey), and my post doc advisor and current boss, Tim McCoy. That summer changed my life without a doubt. I am the first person who would recommend doing an internship – you never know how it will change the course of your future!
Once you figured out you wanted to do Planetary Science, how did you choose your graduate programs?
My Masters program was selected because I had a “project in hand” after working with Buck Sharpton at the LPI for a year after my internship ended. Folks at MSU agreed to work with us on the project, and it took off from there. I chose Case for the advisor. At the time, Ralph (Harvey) was the only person there who did anything planetary, and the department was small. I’d come from getting two degrees in a large department and wanted to try out the small school environment, especially because I was afforded the opportunity to teach my own undergraduate classes as a grad student. I always thought I would end up as a professor, and knew that the teaching experience would be invaluable.
What are your responsibilities at the Smithsonian? What is your favorite part of your job?
At the Smithsonian, I am the Curator of the Antarctic Meteorite collection. My main responsibilities, in addition to research, are to classify all of the meteorites that come back from the Antarctic each year (via the US program, ANSMET). This involves receiving pieces of each meteorite from the Johnson Space Center, and looking at every single one. We classify the meteorites either using oil immersion techniques (for ordinary chondrites) or using the electron microprobe (for interesting ordinary chondrites and everything else). We decide which meteorites are “different”, make thin sections of them, analyze them, and describe them (with a classification) for the biannual Antarctic Meteorite Newsletter. Twice a year I participate in the Meteorite Working Group, a committee on which I am a permanent member. We review proposals from researchers around the world who would like pieces of the U.S. Antarctic meteorites for their research. We host researchers at the Museum, as well, people here for a few days to look at the meteorites in the collection all the way to people on sabbatical.
Working at a Museum is fun – every day is different. You never know when a meteorite is going to fall and the rest of the day will be spent talking to the Press, or whether someone will bring in a meteorite (or meteor-wrong) you need to identify for them. You also never know who will call for a spontaneous tour or who you will meet! I think the lack of repetition is my favorite part of my job – that and being able to meet new people on a regular basis. There are times, though, that I wish it weren’t quite so hectic!
How is working at a museum different than working in academia or at a NASA center? Advantages/disadvantages?
If you take the teaching and swap it with the time responsibilities of curating, it probably equals out. We have the same expectations as new curators to serve on committees within the Museum and to publish papers and bring in grant money as people in academia. My position is not a civil servant position, it is a partially endowment funded position. This means I need to raise the money for part of my salary.
I’d say the biggest difference in working at a museum over the other two is probably that we have a large public outreach requirement, and the percentage of time we are expected to do this is ever-increasing. We spend time out on the floor of the museum talking to people about our research and collections. We give tours. We bring meteorites to classrooms and to places like Congress and the White House. This aspect of the job is very fun, and one of the things I find the most rewarding, but it can take up quite a lot of time.
You are half of a planetary dual career couple- do you have any advice for other dual career couples trying to navigate the job market and/or work/life balance issues?
Aside from luck, which is probably necessary to accommodate two people working in planetary sciences (and more luck yet to get into the same time zone), I think that the most important advice I can give involve patience and persistence. Within a dual-planetary couple (or any dual academic couple for that matter) there has to be a lot of patience and understanding for the lack of predictability these jobs entail, from having to spend an evening working at home on a proposal or paper deadline, or when last minute travel comes up, especially if the couple has children. If both members of the couple understand how this community works, it is probably slightly easier than if they don’t. As with any academic job, never getting the chance to “leave work at work” can really take a toll.
All joking aside, in terms of finding a location where both partners can get a job, I think it helps if you don’t have the same subspecialty. Look for locations where there are multiple institutions or researchers where planetary science is conducted. DC is a perfect example, as you have NASA HQ and Goddard, University of Maryland, Carnegie, the Smithsonian, APL, NRL, and many contractors all doing complimentary work.