Dr. Beatrice Mueller: Find a great advisor, a great support system, and passions outside of science
This interview was conducted by David W. Brown, a freelance writer and contributor to The Week and Vox. He can be found online at http://dwb.io.
Dr. Beatrice E. A. Mueller was born in 1959 near Zurich in Switzerland. She studied physics with a minor in astrophysics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) from 1978-1983. Her diploma work was on International Ultraviolet Explorer data on a symbiotic star. She then spent a year working as a research assistant at the Institute for Astronomy at the ETH. She earned her Ph.D. at University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in 1989; her thesis was on the system GD1401—a white dwarf-red companion system. She did analysis and some modeling of the white dwarf spectrum.
Dr. Mueller worked at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany from 1989-1990, whereupon she packed two suitcases and moved to Tucson. During her time at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, she had a NASA grant, a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, and was also supported through the Galileo mission.
In 2005, she moved to the Planetary Science Institute, where she is a senior scientist. Among her activities and achievements are the successful acquisitions, analysis, and interpretation of observational data of small solar system objects, including contributions to international campaigns resulting in numerous published works. She is the successful principal investigator or co-investigator of over a dozen NASA and National Science Foundation grants since 1993, resulting in over 30 publications. She is a contributor of ground based support data to several NASA missions, and contributes to the archival of ground based data into the Planetary Data System.
She works mostly on ground-based observations, analysis, and interpretation of comets (with and without coma); and also asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects.
Selected recent publications:
Knight, M.M, Mueller, B.E.A., Samarasinha, N.H., Schleicher, D.G. 2015. A Further Investigation of Apparent Periodicities and the Rotational State of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 from Combined Coma Morphology and Lightcurve Datasets. Astron. J., in press. http://arxiv.org/abs/1505.03039
Mueller, B.E.A., Samarasinha, N.H., Farnham, T.L. A’Hearn, M.A. 2013. Analysis of the Sunward Continuum Features of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 from Ground-based Images. Icarus 222, 799-807.
The following interview was conducted by telephone. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you first become interested in astronomy?
It was in high school. I’m originally from Switzerland and went to high school there, and it’s a slightly different system. You had to test into high school and I did that and entered a school that emphasized languages. At that time, I thought I would never do any math or physics, but during high school it turned out that I was good at math and I was interested in science. (I liked languages, but I didn’t want to become a teacher or a linguist.) I had an interest in neurology, but looking at the university curriculum, I had either to study medicine, which I didn’t want to do at all, or study biology which had something like two years of botany first—I just couldn’t handle that! And then I thought: You know, astronomy is the frontier with all the unanswered questions. (Which is of course not true! I found out later that all sciences have such unanswered questions.) But at that time I said I really wanted to find things and do things that nobody has done before. So I started physics in Switzerland at ETH.
In high school they encourage you to talk to the professors, and the professor there was like:
—Oh, you want to study physics as a women?
—Yeah I’m interested in astronomy.
—Oh yeah, well that’s OK then. Astronomy is OK.
So it seems that astronomy was not as highly regarded as physics, and so it was somehow “OK” for women. But it was just one professor, so…
What has your career path been like?
In Switzerland you don’t get a B.S. or Masters; you get a diploma somewhere between the two. I studied physics and I did my diploma work in astrophysics, on a symbiotic star mostly using spectra, so I did spectroscopy. After that I stayed on as a research assistant. I went to Germany—to University of Erlangen-Nuremberg—and did my Ph.D. on a white-dwarf-red-star companion. At that institution, there was a comet group and it seemed like they were just nicer people and more fun, so I got interested and did some work on comets, and I got to be on a paper.
After my Ph.D. I couldn’t find a good job so I spent a year at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) and in Darmstadt in Germany, and I did satellite babysitting. It was not science at all—it was more software. The satellite needed babysitting because it didn’t get into its right orbit, and every time it went through the Van Allen Belt it lost its altitude and we had to recover it. The work was very interesting, though I knew I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life, as it was not research, it was not science. It gave me good insight into how such organizations do its work. ESOC is huge. It’s very international and they have people from Germany, from Britain, from France, all over Europe, working together. I also did shift-work, which was something I definitely didn’t want to do for the rest of my life.
I got encouraged to write a NASA proposal to come to the United States, which I did, and in 1990 I ended up in Tucson working with Michael Belton, doing comet research. Because I didn’t go through the system here, everything was new to me. So I got into the water and learned how to swim. I got hell! The first paper I wrote was all marked-up in red, and that is how I learned to write. And then I started to write my own NASA proposals and have been successful, most of the time. I also worked a little bit on Galileo, more or less, not really doing a lot of science but helping Mike Belton, who was the head of the imaging team.
At the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, I was always on soft money. They ran Kitt Peak, although it didn’t mean I had better access to observations, and you had to put in proposals. They wouldn’t charge you for using the telescope, which was nice. But because NOAO is funded by the National Science Foundation and we were on soft money (though not employed by NOAO), we were not allowed to put in grant proposals to NSF—only to NASA. When it got harder to get grants, having the option to submit to NSF and NASA was important.
In 2005, I went to the Planetary Science Institute, where I am now, and where we could apply to NSF and to NASA. And PSI, as the name says, is a good environment for planetary scientists. It’s a very diverse crowd: geologists, Mars, small bodies, dust, ice—everything. I had a close collaborator at NOAO—Nalin Samarasinha—I’ve been working with him on comet stuff for most of my career. He moved to the PSI too. So I have been here ever since.
What are some of the challenges and rewards of your current work?
The challenge right now, as everyone says, is being on soft money as the pot gets smaller and smaller. The other challenge is the work-life balance. Fortunately I can afford to be on soft money—I’m not on full-time right now. I’m married to someone who is an astronomer and who is at NOAO, so as long as NSF doesn’t fall apart, he has his job. And NOAO is a fixed income, so I can afford to be on soft money. The reward is that I can set my own hours and work as much as I want, and nobody cares when I’m showing up at the office. I can work from home, and that especially helped when I had two young children. One’s now started college and the other is a sophomore in high school, so it’s getting easier. When I was younger, however, it was helpful to have a flexible schedule.
The challenge then, when they were younger, was going to meetings and not having daycare, for example. When they grew older, they just stayed with dad, but when they were younger—when they were still infants—you’re nursing and you had to take them with you. That was a challenging time. But that was, for me, like 15 years ago.
And another rewarding thing, of course, is how exciting the field is. We are still finding new stuff in the solar system. We just flew by Pluto and have these incredible images, and visited Ceres and Vesta! The more observations you get, the more you learn and the more questions are raised. You’re never going to get to answer everything, which I think is exciting. We strive to answer the fundamental questions of our own solar system, and new questions open up, and we discover that it is all a little more complicated than we think it is.
You mention traveling with children. Have things improved?
Not really. I don’t think they have improved. I know they’re trying. With the Internet and Facebook, at least you can send out a message and ask, Hey is anyone else going? Do we want to share childcare duties? But it’s still not at a point where you don’t have to worry about it, where you go to the conference and there’s daycare available on-site or nearby, and at a reasonable price. And I always hear that the same thing: it’s a liability issue and meetings cannot do this.
So I don’t think it has improved. What has improved a bit is that there are some travel grants that help with expenses. It helps but it’s not enough. Especially, often it’s mostly women who face this—not just women, but mostly. They have the children relatively early in their careers, when they’re maybe on soft money, or post-docs, or even graduate students, and that’s when the money is tight. And helping defray the cost helps a little bit, but it’s not enough. I mean if the entire cost is not covered, sometimes they might not be able to go to the conferences. And bringing a spouse is not always feasible, either.
What misconceptions do undergrads often have when they come into the program?
That everything is always totally exciting, and that every time you go to the telescope, you find something new, and that everything you do is rewarding. Sometimes you have to do the boring stuff. You have to slog through data or spend a lot of time on the computer. I’m an observational astronomer, so they’re like: Oh you go up there all the time and you’re up all night? And I’m like: No, I go maybe twice a year and the rest of the time I sit at the computer and do a lot of computer data analysis.
One other thing that many are not prepared for—I wasn’t!—is that you do a lot of writing, and that it is extremely important and it takes a lot of time. If you do your science in your office and you don’t share it, it’s really not useful. And in order to share your science, you have to write papers. You have to write them up. That’s one thing we don’t learn in graduate school at all. If you’re lucky you’ll have a mentor who says: You write the next paper. And if you say you don’t know how, well: start, and get help. But I think that’s a misconception. That you just do your science. No, you have to communicate it. I think that was a shock to me when I started out. You must communicate it to your peers and also to the public. We’re lucky in planetary science, because people are so interested in it all. We can go places—fly spacecraft across the solar system—whereas you’re not going to fly a spacecraft to another star anytime soon.
When moving into your current position, what are you happiest that you negotiated for?
Well, there’s nothing to negotiate. In a soft money position, you bring in your own money. So there is no salary negotiation. When you come to PSI, if you bring 50% coverage of your salary, you get benefits and an office and get computer support, and there is really no negotiation for positions or such. If the director wants to do science, the director has to bring in soft money, a grant.
How do you balance demands on your time?
Sometimes badly. The most important thing is my calendar. I have to write stuff down—I have to bring a child to a doctor, or they have something at school—and then of the other sort, it’s a grant running out, so I’d better get something done and have it finished, or going to a conference, and: Oh, I need to present something! I’d better work on that. It’s always a bit of “What is due next?” and I work on that. It’s not the best time management even after all these years. I have never really learned to do it right because you have the best plans and then something else pops up. Finally the reviews come back from a paper! Oh, now I have to do that.
And then a lot of stuff comes our way that we are not paid for—a request for reviewing a paper, or a request from NASA to sit on a panel. I’m on the NOAO observing time allocation committee: Oh yeah, we’re going to get 40 proposals to read and they have to be read by a certain date and you have to make your assessments. I think it’s gotten worse because when I started, you could have two grants that cover six months of your salary each. That is almost impossible to get now. So you need to have three months there, three months there, three months there, three months there, and it becomes harder to concentrate on one thing or to do it right. And I’ve seen discussions with NASA where the problem is raised, and they say write bigger proposals. But you don’t get them if they’re too expensive! I think that’s a problem: that you have too many projects, but you need them to get your salary if you’re on soft money.
What advice do you have to students and post-docs just starting their careers in space science?
Find something you really like—that you are passionate about—and then talk to people in the field who are your peers, and also the ones who are higher up, who are further along. Don’t be afraid to approach people and ask either about their science or for their advice. If you can, find a great advisor, and if that doesn’t work—if you’re too far along to change, then find someone else for mentoring. It doesn’t have to be the same person to mentor scientifically.
Also, have a big support system outside of science. Friends, family, significant others. And if you’re passionate about science, have something outside of science too. It’s OK if you’re passionate about science and music and want to do both. Sometimes the concentration is more on science, and sometimes maybe the concentration is more on your other passion.
Lastly, keep your options open. Sometimes you set a career path: undergrad then grad then a post-doc then a university position or teaching or go to the soft money route—but sometimes something opens up that you haven’t even thought about. And there’s nothing wrong with deciding later that maybe an academic career was the wrong plan, or that you really don’t want a soft money research position either. If you want to go into industry, there’s nothing wrong with that.
What is one opportunity that you took advantage of along the way that you would recommend to others?
Mine was to jump to another country. I went from Germany to the U.S. and I was glad I took the opportunity. The plan was just for three years for a sort of post-doc, and then I’d go back. But then, no, I stayed. So sometimes the stuff is a little bit scary but. And I know some of my colleagues went the other way. They started out in the U.S. and they’re in Europe. So if there’s an opportunity—yes, take it. Take the opportunity if you can. Don’t be scared to change countries.
A big thanks to David for conducting this interview and to Beatrice for sharing these valuable insights!
If you are wiling to be interviewed or conduct an interview, please contact ksinger at boulder.swri.edu. We would love to augment our career advice with many more interviews!