Dr. Christina Viviano-Beck: “Be nice to people, and conduct yourself professionally and your science responsibly – it matters”.
Interview conducted by Dr. Lynnae Quick:
Dr. Christina Viviano-Beck is a Staff Scientist in the Planetary Exploration Group at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). I first met Dr. Christina Viviano-Beck while finishing up my dissertation at APL (she was gracious enough to share an office with a then-grad student! :). She works on the CRISM instrument, specializing in visible/near-infrared and thermal infrared spectroscopy, and the geology of Mars. Her interests lie in understanding the evolution of Mars over time, and the environments that existed during the early history of Mars, as preserved in the rock record.
Viviano-Beck, C., Seelos, F., Murchie, S. Kahn, E., Seelos, K. Taylor, H. Taylor, K., Ehlmann, B., Wisemann, S., Mustard, J. and Morgan, M. F. (2014), Revised CRISM spectral parameters and summary products based on the currently detected mineral diversity on Mars, JGR-Planets, 119(6), 1403-1431.
1. How did you first become interested in planetary science?
My grandparents on my mom’s side were science oriented – my grandmother was a science teacher and my grandfather had a landscape business (and a degree in forestry). So growing up, many of our family visits would include small experiments in the kitchen and exploring the outdoors. My siblings and I would spend our summer vacations trying to find brachiopods washed up along my grandparents’ cottage shore on Lake Erie. The encouragement for exploration and uninhibited curiosity during those visits stuck with me. I took to math and physics in school and was encouraged by my parents to pursue that interest. After taking my first astronomy and geology courses in college, I knew a more multidisciplinary approach to science would appeal to me. I had to test out the field quite a bit to find my niche. I think my motto must have been “try everything!” I counted and classified diatoms in Antarctic sediments, I characterized seismic activity in Colorado, and finally I took my first remote sensing course on a semester abroad in Australia. I absolutely loved playing around with the images in ENVI and realized if I could somehow merge this with my interest in space/physics/geology it would be a winning combination. And lo-and-behold there was an actual discipline called planetary science.
2. How did your interest in space/planetary science influence your decisions on where to attend college and graduate school?
As much as I enjoyed math and science, going into college I really hadn’t pinned down what I wanted to do. I chose to go to a small liberal arts school (Colgate University) that has well-rounded, rigorous science programs where I would have the flexibility and time to try a variety of disciplines before declaring a major. When looking for a graduate program, I started by searching journal articles on topics that interested me. I found Dr. Jeff Moersch (my to-be-advisor at The University of Tennessee) when poking around Google Scholar searching spectroscopy studies on Mars. Once we spoke in person and discussed his advising approach and my scientific interests and goals, I felt like it would be a good match. I feel very fortunate to have found a great balance at Tennessee between a solid planetary program and an advisor who prioritized the research interests of his students.
3. After completing your Ph.D., did you do a post-doc? If so, at what institution(s) were you a post-doc and what was the nature of your research?
Yes – I literally defended my dissertation and began my postdoc at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) within a week! Dr. Scott Murchie, PI of the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), was my postdoc advisor, and my role at APL included both CRISM targeting and research. I was brought in to help revamp the CRISM summary parameters, which boil down the 544 bands of spectral information in each pixel of a CRISM image into something that is meaningful to a geologist. The summary parameters highlight compositional diversity on the surface, where each parameter is sensitive to a different mineral or surface compositions. I basically delved into the nitty-gritty of the equations that are used to create these parameters and tried to optimize them for the compositions that we know to exist on the surface, now that MRO has been in orbit for 8+ years. It pushed me to improve my programming skills and dig into the CRISM dataset in a way that has helped me on the research-end of things. The new parameters provide better analysis of each CRISM image and have helped me to identify increasingly diverse mineralogies in the walls of Valles Marineris. I really believe that the quality of my tools as a scientist is as important as my ability for critical analysis.
4. Did you always have a desire to work at a research institution like APL? What factors drew you to working on the research side as opposed to pure academia?
Nope! For quite some time I thought I would be pursuing the academic end of things. It’s basically what I lived and breathed for the first 28 years of my life and I loved teaching during graduate school; it is fulfilling to guide another person to that moment of awareness and clarity in understanding something about the world around them. While my path to working at a research institution may have been unplanned, I am grateful it turned out that way. I followed Andrew Beck, the better half of my “two-body problem” (he’s a meteoriticist), to the DC area – he had a postdoc position at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. I was fortunate enough to find the job at APL and he actually works there now, too. I have been at APL for nearly three years, transitioning to a staff position last year, and I can say that without a doubt the amazing scientific challenges and collaborations I have experienced here have left no room for me to be nostalgic for teaching. I will always hold a special place for education and outreach, but my research experience at APL has allowed my inquisitive side to flourish and I’m currently having a blast with that challenge!
5. What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job and what do you feel has been the most challenging aspect?
The most enjoyable aspect hinges on my unrestricted access to the CRISM data. The targeted imagery can be quite large and I remember in graduate school spending a good amount of time downloading a single scene to look at. Having the data at my fingertips means I can dig into an image without investing so much lead-time. Looking at so many images has helped to calibrate my eye to interesting aspects of the data that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I’ve also taken a keen interest in writing programs to help me automate processes that I am doing constantly. Of course, programming can be arduous at times, but in the end it is rewarding and empowering when I’ve streamlined simple processes and reduced redundant tasks in my day-to-day work routine.
The most challenging aspect for me personally is writing, writing, and more writing! I loved math and science for the problem sets and (apparent) lack of writing. But, it is truly proving to be an important skill that I have to use daily. I love making figures, and would even prefer a presentation with slides to sitting down and hammering out a paper or writing a proposal. But honestly, it’s not all that bad, and once it’s complete I get to analyze a new problem :).
6. Do you have any tips for maintaining the all important work-life balance?
Yikes – I could probably use some tips? It’s tough – no two ways about it. I think one of the best skills you can develop is your “off switch”. I have found that trying to compartmentalize my work to physically being at work has been important for giving the rest of my life room and time to flourish and grow. It’s easy to feel like you’re always behind at work and maybe even easier to feel like you’re scrambling at life. All too often there will be no balance, but I think the key is to understand that is normal and not to allow yourself to feel overwhelmed or discouraged by that – at least not for too long.
7. Do you have any advice for graduate students, postdocs, or early career scientists in search of their first permanent job?
I honestly hate when I’m given this advice, but it almost always holds true: it never hurts to ask! While the idealist side of me says that all of my abilities and positive qualities should be assessed without influence, honestly, the sometimes-painful reality is that we make our own luck. It is very uncomfortable for me, personally, to get behind really ‘selling’ my qualities and contributions as a scientist, but everyone is so busy and caught up in all of their own matters that the potential I have, inherent to these qualities, may never be fully realized unless I wave them around once and a while. Lastly, I think that personal attitude and quality of work are critical for success. Be nice to people, and conduct yourself professionally and your science responsibly – it matters.
Thank you Christina for sharing your advice and insights, and Lynnae for conducting this wonderful interview!