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Martha Gilmore: Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong in this field

June 16, 2021


Martha Gilmore is the Seney Professor of Geology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Wesleyan University, Middletown CT. A geologist who specializes in the study of planetary surfaces using geomorphic mapping and VNIR spectroscopy on Venus, Mars and Earth, Dr. Gilmore compares spectral signatures from field and laboratory work to orbital images to better interpret the signals received from remote sensing platforms. Dr. Gilmore received the Geological Society of America’s 2020 Randolph W. “Bill” and Cecile T. Bromery Award for, in part, her significant contributions to expanding diversity in the geosciences. She is a science team member of both NASA Discovery mission teams that will explore Venus and will use her expertise in morphology and spectroscopy to help us better understand the environment of Venus.

Her most-recent publications (w/ undergrad students denoted by ^) include:

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

I grew up in Harrisburg, PA and would visit the PA State Museum. Throughout my childhood I loved the planetarium there and the natural history exhibits – I was in awe and so interested in what I was seeing. I was also enthralled by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos show which reported on the discoveries of the Voyager spacecraft. I still remember the episode that uses a piece of paper covered with zeros draped throughout the streets of a city to explain how large a googolplex is!

Who inspired you?

My parents, mostly. Our house was filled with books, music, art and conversation. They made me feel like I could do or be anything I wanted. I try to hold on to that feeling when confronted with sexism and racism in my field as an adult.

How did you choose your current institution?

I was a postdoc at JPL and was trying to decide between seeking a career at NASA or at a university. Working for NASA is very attractive because it offers the opportunity to be at the forefront of planetary exploration, but in the end, I realized that many academics do work with NASA while enjoying the benefits of tenure and a steady income (which I needed). I attended a liberal arts college (Franklin and Marshall, Lancaster PA) and I really appreciated the strong academics in a supportive department. One of my Venus buddies was a Wesleyan alum and it turns out that Wesleyan is really unique – it is a liberal arts university with great students, but a real emphasis on and support for research.

What classes do you teach?

At the Intro Level:
Introduction to Planetary Geology
The Planets

At the Upper/Graduate Level:
Geomorphology
Remote Sensing
Planetary Evolution

How are students (undergraduate or otherwise) involved in your research?

I always have undergraduate and MA students working with me if possible! Student research is encouraged and often funded at Wesleyan, so it’s a matter of finding a good match. Some of the best work comes from students that enter my lab as sophomores so we have time to really flesh out a project. I have had several papers with undergraduate and graduate student co-authors on lab and field work on Earth, Venus and Mars projects.

Is there anything you wish you had negotiated for in your current position?

I’m lucky, I have a dear friend who is a businessman and he sat me down and told me how to negotiate a salary. He insisted I be assertive and we actually worked out a set of talking points that I practiced (like a conference talk!) prior to the negotiation. This really helped, because the experience was so outside my instincts to just take what they offer that I needed to rely on my script to stay calm and strong. The provost at the time was resisting and visibly sweating, but I held my ground and got a great starting salary. In academia, your initial salary determines your earnings over your entire career, so that 30-minute negotiation resulted in an additional tens of thousands of dollars over the 21 years I’ve been here. And if that doesn’t sway you, remember that Mediocre White Guy is often comfortable negotiating for a higher salary, and is likely to be offered more than you in the first place. Don’t sell yourself short.

What do you do for fun?

My house is a mess, but my garden is the bomb!

Please share any advice you have for students and post-docs just starting their career in space science.

I love, love, love planetary science so if you do too, go for it! The trick is to find an environment where you can do your best work. It’s important to find a network of allies inside and outside your institution to help you when things get rough. Work with good people and don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong in this field.

Thanks for the great interview, Martha!

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