Dr. Brett Denevi: Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way
This interview is was conducted by Heather Meyer who is conducting her graduate studies at Arizona State University.
Dr. Denevi is a Planetary Geologist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), and she is currently serving as the Deputy Principal Investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). She also served as the Deputy Instrument Scientist for the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) on board the MESSENGER spacecraft at Mercury leading the in-flight calibration and co-leading the Geology Discipline Group. Dr. Denevi was also a Participating Scientist on the Dawn mission at Vesta investigating pitted terrain and the presence of volatiles. Her research interests include the origin, composition, and evolution of planetary surfaces. Her research focuses on the history of volcanism and crustal formation on terrestrial bodies, the mineralogy and chemistry of planetary surfaces, the space weathering history of airless bodies, and the development and evolution of regolith.
Denevi, B. W., M. S. Robinson, A. K. Boyd, D. T. Blewett, R. L. Klima (2016) The distribution and extent of lunar swirls, Icarus, 273, 53–67, doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2016.01.017.
Denevi, B. W., M. S. Robinson, A. K. Boyd, H. Sato, B. W. Hapke, B. R. Hawke (2014) Characterization of space weathering from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera ultraviolet observations of the Moon, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, 119, 967–997, doi:10.1002/2013JE004527.
Denevi, B. W., C. M. Ernst, H. M. Meyer, M. S. Robinson, S. L. Murchie, J. L. Whitten, J. W. Head, T. R. Watters, S. C. Solomon, L. R. Ostrach, C. R. Chapman, P. K. Byrne, C. Klimczak, P. N. Peplowski (2013) The distribution and origin of smooth plains on Mercury, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, 118, 1–17, doi:10.1002/jgre.20075.
- How did you first become interested in planetary science?
I didn’t know that planetary science existed until college. I’ve always been interested in space in a general sense, but I didn’t go into college with any clear idea of what my major would be. As a work-study student at Northwestern, I got a job in the physics and astronomy department, but didn’t really enjoy it. My advisor at the time suggested that I talk to a professor in the geology department who did “NASA stuff”. That professor turned out to be Mark Robinson, now the PI for LROC. I started in the geology department with a NASA space grant internship, and I spent the summer processing images of asteroid Eros during the NEAR mission. That summer job was a revelation – I had no idea you could study geology in that way. And whereas my job in the physics and astronomy department felt tedious, this was exciting every day, a combination of space exploration and my hobby, photography. In the fall I switched to a geology major.
- What has your career path been like since graduating with your PhD, and/or how did you choose your current institution?
My path has been pretty traditional. After finishing my PhD, I took a post-doc position at Arizona State University (ASU) working on LROC and MESSENGER. APL ran the MESSENGER mission, so I knew a lot of people there, and talked to them about coming to work on science and operations for the orbital mission when it felt like the time to move on from my post-doc, The timing worked out well, so I took a permanent position at APL.
Related question: What skills do you think best helped you get the jobs you were looking for over your career?
Technical skills have been really helpful. I learned image processing skills as an undergrad. As a grad student, my advisor emphasized working on instrumentation to support your science interests. I worked on testing and a processing pipeline for an imaging sensor being developed, and for my comprehensive exam, I had to design a camera to achieve specific science objectives. In my post-doc I worked on laboratory and in-flight calibration. Those skills were really valuable when it came time to look for jobs, and now are really valuable for instrument-scientist-type positions and working on instrument and mission proposals.
- Is there anything you wish you had negotiated for with your current position? (or are happy you did negotiate for!)
I don’t have any regrets, but I didn’t really negotiate. I did make it clear that I did not want a second post-doc position, and I was able to secure a full staff position. The salary was so much more than what I was making as a postdoc that it didn’t really occur to me to negotiate.
- 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 go into my calendar and block out big chunks of time for my own research and other critical tasks, and try to plan out my priorities each month. That way my time isn’t as easily usurped by meetings and all of the other small things that come up. But it’s always hard. In terms of priorities outside of work, the culture at APL helps tremendously. The research group is very supportive, and they set a tone and culture where prioritizing family and taking time for vacation are not only acceptable, but important.
- Do you have any advice for students and post-docs just starting their career in space science?
One thing that has sort of become evident to me over time is the importance of saying yes to the opportunities that you come across, even if they don’t seem extremely important or like the most exciting thing at the outset. I spent months as an undergrad counting boulders in Lunar Orbiter images, which is not the most thrilling task. But that work eventually led to a proposal I wrote to study the regolith of Vesta, and that’s how I ended up as a participating scientist on the Dawn mission. You never know when these things will turn out to be useful or lead to larger opportunities.
- How do you involve students in your research?
APL hosts both high school and undergraduate internship programs, in part through NASA summer internships. We have also recently made a few university partnerships that will bring students to work with researchers at APL. These are really great programs, and a lot of the summer interns who have worked here go on to graduate programs. I especially like the summer undergrad program, because I started in this field in a similar kind of internship. A lot of the people who apply to APL are majoring in engineering or other fields, and end up being really interested in planetary science once they learn about it.
- Is there anything else you would like to talk about that might be of interest to other women in planetary science?
One of the things that comes up a lot is having children, and what the timing should be. I now have two kids, one that I had as I was finishing up grad school and transitioning to a post-doc, and one when I was in a permanent staff position. Both were hard, both were good, and you can make it work whatever the timing. There can be a lot of pressure, especially when you’re first starting out in your career, to kind of drive yourself crazy proving that you can do everything, and that having a baby has no affect on your job. I’m not sure how to avoid feeling that pressure, but maybe it is at least useful to recognize it and know that it can and should be okay to turn down things like travel to some meetings and conferences when you need to.
- What is your favorite mission so far and why?
I have really enjoyed working for LROC because I’ve been able to see it through from the lab to extended missions, but I also loved MESSENGER. So little was known about Mercury prior to that mission, so it was really exciting to get to be a part of that exploration and discovery.
- What was your first experience working with a mission team, and how did you get involved?
As previously mentioned, I was a summer undergraduate intern on the NEAR mission. I got involved because I just showed up one day and asked for a job.
Thanks to Heather for conducting this interview and thanks to Brett for sharing these insights!