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Dr. Athena Coustenis: just follow your dreams

January 27, 2016


Athena Coustenis is Director of Research 1st class with the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the Observatory of Paris-Meudon, in France. Her research is devoted to the investigation of planetary atmospheres and surfaces, with emphasis on icy moons like Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus, and Jupiter’s Ganymede and Europa, objects with high astrobiological potential. She has led many observational campaigns from the ground and space using large observatories (CFHT, UKIRT, VLT, etc), and the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) to conduct planetary investigations. Athena is a Co-Investigator of three of the instruments (CIRS, HASI, DISR) aboard the Cassini/Huygens space mission to Saturn and Titan. She also works on the characterization of exoplanetary atmospheres.

Athena is involved in the science definition of the JUICE mission developed by ESA to study Ganymede and the jovian system, currently planned for launch in 2022. She is the current Chair of the Space Sciences Committee of the European Science Foundation. She is also contributing to several advisory groups for the European Space Agency and for NASA.

Athena Coustenis has written more than 130 peer-reviewed publications and several chapters in encyclopedias. She has given more than 500 communications in scientific conventions and public events, made several TV and film/documentary appearances in connection to planetary sciences and participated in several television/media documentaries. She has first-authored three books. She has been recognized with many NASA and ESA achievement awards and the 2014 AAS/DPS Harold Masursky Award.

Recent Publication(s):

  • Coustenis, A., Jennings, D. E., Achterbergh, R. K., Bampasidis, G., Lavvas, P., Nixon, C. A., Teanby, N. A., Anderson, C. M., Flasar, F. M., 2015. Titan’s temporal evolution in stratospheric trace gases near the poles. Icarus, in press, DOI:10.1016/j.icarus.2015.08.027.
  • Coustenis, A., Encrenaz, Th., 2013. Life beyond Earth: the search for habitable worlds in the Universe. Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN: 9781107026179.
  • Coustenis, A., 2015. “The Cassini-Huygens mission”. Chapter in the Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, 2nd edition, Gargaud, R. Amils, J. Cernicharo, H. J. Cleaves II, K. Kobayashi, D. Pinti, M. Viso (Eds), Springer, 2550 p., ISBN 978-3-662-44184-8.


1 – How did you first become interested in astronomy or planetary science?

I come from a country where people look up at the sky quite often, especially at nighttime, preferably while lying on the soft sand of the beach… And ancient Greeks were always at the heart of questioning what surrounds us. Aristarchos invented the heliocentric solar system, Eratosthenes proved the Earth was round and discovered the distance to the moon and Anaximander had the Universe all structured out. At first I wanted to be an astronaut, but my eyes weren’t up to it. My love for serious SF like Asimov, and series like Star Trek, Cosmos, etc. soon brought me to wanting to get involved in discovering what’s in our Universe. Because I like to test my theories, I opted for Planetology gathering data from large ground-based telescopes to try and unveil the mysteries of solar system objects. Also with my knowledge in Space Techniques from my PhD I was able to participate in space missions and retrieve observations that I compared to my models to see what worked and what didn’t. I quickly got more interested in the outer solar system and the icy satellites and have been following the exciting developments since then and contributing to improving on our understanding of these unique worlds.


2 – What has your career path been like since graduating with your PhD, and/or how did you choose your current institution?

After studying both Physics and English Literature and obtaining two Master degrees, I decided to do my PhD in Astrophysics and Space Techniques. After 2 years of post-Doc at Paris observatory, working on Voyager data taken 10 years previously (!!) I applied for and obtained a permanent position with the French National Scientific Research Center. It was a fantastic opportunity to secure a research position, which allows me to devote my time to studying my favorite planetary objects in a propitious environment (LESIA: the Space Studies and Instrumentation in Astrophysics Laboratory). LESIA has world-recognized expertise both in space and in ground-based observations and modeling. At the time of my hiring by CNRS I had already a fair number of publications and was involved in the preparation of the Cassini-Huygens mission. Having already worked with great mentors during my thesis and Post-Doc at LESIA, I had amassed quite some expertise in data analysis and the laboratory was strongly supportive of my candidature.


3 – Is there anything you wish you had negotiated for with your current position? (or are happy you did negotiate for!)

The CNRS offers a permanent and governmental position so there was no need to negotiate anything and I was lucky enough to do my “job” in a beautiful environment (Meudon Observatory is situated on the grounds of an old castle with its gardens and forest), within one of the well-recognized space-related departments in Europe, boasting a great team of planetary scientists. My colleagues graciously shared their knowledge with me when I was beginning my career and have since become more than colleagues, my friends and collaborators on fantastic projects. The connections allowed me by LESIA have given me the opportunity to establish strong and long-lasting collaborations with many colleagues outside LESIA, all over the world. And all of this, including the fact that I can research absolutely anything I want, that I can be involved in many international projects and that my job is in fact a dream come true, came at no cost (btw the salary is the same for all scientists, male or female, at a given grade in CNRS). Lucky, lucky, lucky !


4 – You are now Director of Research 1st class with the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) of France at the Paris Observatory in Meudon. You also participate in space missions of ESA and NASA. What exactly are your duties?

As director of research, I conduct my own research in which I acquire data from ground-based or space observatories, analyze them and infer information related to the studied objects. But more importantly I can organize and direct research projects involving my students and collaborators. This is a very rewarding activity. Being in contact with young people is always stimulating and productive. I am very happy to have today several of my former PhD or Master students occupying important positions in European or international institutions. We are still very much in contact and I have the pleasure to participate in research they initiate and conduct themselves.

As far as space missions are concerned: In 2008 and for two years I had the chance to participate as Lead European Scientist to the study of the Titan Saturn System Mission concept. It was a wonderful experience that has led to many new technological ideas to be developed for returning to the Saturnian system after the Cassini-Huygens mission ends. From 2010 to its selection by ESA (February 2013) I was Co-lead of the Science Study Team of the JUICE mission to Jupiter and its system, with focus on Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. Since its adoption I am involved in the scientific definition and the development of the mission as well as Co-I of the camera on board.

The expertise I gathered and the things I learned during all these mission studies are invaluable to me. The best “school” experience ever! Not to mention the standing long-term collaborations that continue to date and have led to many more studies and results.


5 – Can you tell us more about you experience in various advisory committees, such as NASA or ESA?

I have been asked to participate in – and in some cases to lead – the discussions in several committees of the space agencies. I have thus been the Chair of the Solar System and Exploration Working Group of ESA at very interesting times when, among others, selections for future missions were made. I have also been a member of several other committees within the ESA advisory structure: HESAC, SSAC, HISPAC. My participation to these committees has brought me closer to the space business from the scientific but also from the technological, programmatic and political point of view. I have learned a lot about how a mission concept becomes reality, now seeing it from the “inside” also and not only as a proposer.

I have also contributed to scientific panels for NASA and performed evaluations of project proposals for several space agencies. Among other functions, I have been President of the International Atmospheric and Meteorological Association (IAMAS) of the IUGG from 2011 to 2015. As such, I had a chance to promote atmospheric sciences within the larger geophysics community and to learn quite a lot on terrestrial physics and our planet’s properties, which are clearly connected to the field of planetary sciences (and vice versa). In particular, I was immersed in the subject of climate change, which has become one of my new important scientific interests.

In my new capacity as President of the Space Sciences Committee of the European Science Foundation, I aim at bringing the scientific community to interact more closely with the stakeholders and decision makers within Europe. We offer advise on space-related subjects such as Earth observations, Life and Physical Sciences, Planetary and solar exploration, and in general Astronomy and Fundamental Physics. Our recommendations go to ESA but also to the European Commission, Parliament, national agencies, etc. It is a great responsibility to have a voice in the future of the space program in Europe but also sometimes on an international level via collaborations we have established with the US, Russia, China and other countries.


6 – How do you manage all of the different demands on your time? And/or how do you find time for your priorities outside of work?

I have a lovely family, my daughter, Callista, is currently 14 years old. I travel a lot but keep a very close eye on what she’s doing at school and outside on a day-to-day basis. With my husband, Franck, we have a very organized program, sharing the tasks. Sometimes it becomes very difficult for me to attend all the meetings I’m invited to and all the personal events, especially at the end of the school year. There are months when it seems everyone is scheduling a meeting at the same time. Telecons help, but some days I have 3 of them scheduled and it has happened to me to be trying to listen into two telecons at the same time! So I try to prioritize my attendance, the conferences I give and my travel. When I’m not away, I spend a lot of time with friends and family. Social life and family life is very important to maintain a sane balance in our very busy lives and to prevent us from becoming monomaniacs who only think of the stars! Somehow it all comes together and I don’t feel cheated out of anything in my life. I live fully my life as woman, mother and scientist and have no regrets. The word is: organization!


7 – I can remember vividly the impact that the Cassini-Huygens mission had on arrival at Saturn and Titan. How did you become involved in such an exciting mission?

After my PhD thesis which was devoted to the analysis of Titan infrared spectroscopic data acquired by Voyager 1/IRIS, I became somewhat of an expert in Titan atmospheric aspects. So, when the Cassini-Huygens mission was in preparation and proposals written for the various instruments on board, I was invited to participate to several of them and amazingly enough ended up as a co-I in 3 instruments accepted (CIRS on Cassini and HASI and DISR on Huygens). What was wonderful was that these three instruments provide information on Saturn and on several different aspects of Titan’s atmosphere and surface so that I was able to participate in the planet’s and the satellite’s investigations from various points of view and to compose rather complete models.


8 – Are planetary scientists such as you keen to get back to Titan?

Absolutely! I spent several years as part of a large community of scientists trying to put together new concepts for a space mission to return to Titan and Enceladus. It’s still an on-going process. We are looking at challenging new ideas, like a balloon to fly around Titan’s equator, landers for the lakes and the other parts of the surface and new instrumentation to observe Titan and Enceladus and tell us what is hiding on the surface, in the interior, how complex is the organic chemistry in the atmosphere and so on… In the meantime, we managed to get a mission selected by ESA to fly to the Jovian system and investigate the system with a focus on Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. More studies are under way in Europe, the US, China and Japan for exciting new missions to the outer solar system. In all cases, it’s wonderful to be part of the team that defines a mission architecture and science goals for future exploration, which will bring us great new insights.


9 – In your experience, as a Co-I on big missions, what makes for a good PI?

Whether a Co-I or a P-I, in a mission everyone counts, including very importantly the engineers and technical assistants and the young scientists (like I was when I started working on Cassini-Huygens). The important thing is to get everyone to work together and to put their expertise in a common pot that will lead to the best possible science return. This is the job of the leaders as I learned when I was co-leading studies for future missions to the outer solar system (to the Saturnian or the Jovian system). We also learn a lot when we are involved in such an endeavor. When you are a mission PI or an instrument PI you have to be invested 300%, you have to be organized, have an idea of the “big picture” and delegate at the same time to your colleagues Co-Is according to their expertise.


10 – Do you have any advice for students and post-docs just starting their career in space science?

Enjoy! Being a young scientist is a wonderful time in your lives. Your future is open and exciting. Even though positions may be hard to get and financial crisis is affecting all kinds of universities and agency centers, don’t be scared to look ahead and believe. Always be positive, friendly and have a sense of humor. Show your interest and enthusiasm. Go ahead and talk to established scientists that you meet and listen to what they have to say. Collaborate! Never stay alone in your corner trying to figure out the Universe: even if they come from you, the best ideas stem from discussions and exchanges with others. You do not go into competition mode when you’re a student, you do not worry about others “stealing” your ideas. You share and you learn. Be self-critical, hard working and driven. Look out for opportunities, sometimes what may seems as not perhaps the most interesting research work can turn out to be a door opener. As long as you’re a student, don’t just focus on what you know or what you think you want to specialize in, attend seminars and read books outside your field, that broadens your mind. Be at the right place at the right time: after all, that’s how the Earth got to be a habitable planet …


Is there anything else you would like to talk about that might be of interest to other women in planetary science?

Although I know it exists, I personally have not suffered by being a woman in the science world, not even when I was younger in my job. Motivation, dedication and knowledge are arms equally important for men and women, which force the respect in all professional fields. Just follow your dreams, find the balance in your life that satisfies you and never make concessions because some societal imprints try to tell you that you can’t do this or that. I come from a small, traditional country and a military family. That never stopped me from achieving my goals, on the contrary, it gave me the incentive and the stamina to push forward, to question the “rules” and the preconceptions and to always imagine on…


Thanks for these great answers Athena!


One Comment leave one →
  1. Rajani Dhingra permalink
    January 28, 2016 11:25 am

    Thanks for this motivating interview Athena. Enthusiasm and interest are the two things which drive scientific career. It gave my day a refreshing start. Salutes to you for pulling it off so well!!

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