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Carlè McGetchin Pieters: The Journey of a Math Teacher to the Moon and Beyond…

July 13, 2021

This interview was conducted by Dr. Deepak Dhingra. Thanks to Dr. Carle Pieters for sharing her wisdom and Deepak for making this wonderful interview possible :).

About the interviewer: Deepak Dhingra is planetary geologist with expertise in near infrared spectroscopy and remote sensing geology. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. In the past, he worked on Chandrayaan-1 mission at the Indian Space Agency, ISRO and later was a member of the M3 team at Brown University, USA.

The Journey of a Math Teacher to the Moon and Beyond…

“Be Glad, Be Generous, Be Not Afraid.” These three tenets summarize the journey of a former high school math teacher who went on to become a world acclaimed planetary scientist, a spectroscopist and a champion of lunar science. Meet Carlè McGetchin Pieters, Professor (emeritus) in the department of Earth, Environment and Planetary Science (DEEPS) at Brown University, USA, and Distinguished Scientist at SSERVI (Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute). A well-respected figure in the science of squiggly lines, as Carlè would say, she is best known for her discovery of olivine-bearing central peaks at lunar crater Copernicus, spectral characterization of lunar nearside basalts and her reflectance measurement facility, RELAB. Most recently, Carlè and her team got accolades for discovering global lunar hydration signatures (OH/H2O) and a new lunar rock type (Pink Spinel Anorthosite – PSA). These discoveries were made by Carlè’s dream instrument, Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) that orbited the Moon for which she was the principal investigator.

Carlè in her office at Brown University in the 1980s.
Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) changed our views of the Moon forever. Team member, Rachel Klima (who is an active planetary scientist @ JHU-APL) weaved one of M3 views of the Moon into a pillow along with signatures of all the team members as a memento for the PI, Carlè Pieters.

With a professional career spanning four decades (and counting), Carlè has been a witness to the excitement of space exploration, the first lunar samples and how the field has evolved in terms of its competitiveness and diversity of science. Here, we try to pan through her experiences, hoping to pick some nuggets on the way.

Deepak: Hello Carlè. Welcome to the Women in Planetary Science (WiPS) blog space. Let’s start with the starting of your early days as a student. Did you have a role model or was there any event that strongly influenced your career trajectory?

Carlè: Growing up, I had always assumed that I would go to college and have some sort of a career. I was good at math and assumed that it would allow me to go in different directions. My last year, I realized I better take some physics. I loved how physics gave meaning to the math. I made a deal with the physics professor: I would help him organize and straighten out the mess of materials in the physics teaching lab if he would tutor me in Physics II.        

That was probably the single most important event that got me into the sciences. It was also the first time I learned (GASP!!) that not all science questions have answers.

Deepak: Great lesson right there! And thanks to the Physics Professor for making you stick around in the sciences. Moving on, could you share your major turning points in your career, decisions that you took, failures that you suffered, achievements that you would like to credit, for where you are today?

Carlè: There were two major turning points – both very challenging. The first was an overwhelming disappointment, the second almost the opposite. In hindsight, I realize the second would probably not have happened without all the experience I gained from the first.

In mid-career, I was challenged to take the lead for a Discovery proposal which we ended up calling Aladdin. This was a small mission with a few remote sensors (cameras, spectrometer, dust detector) to go to both moons of Mars, kick up some dirt, capture it onto our special ‘carpet’, and bring it back for analyses. Despite getting shortlisted twice (Phase-A selections), the mission did not make it to the final selections. In my opinion, Aladdin was next to perfect and (apparently THE) front runner. Not getting selected was a huge blow, one that I could not avoid or alter in any way along the way. So I grunted, cut my hair short, and it’s been that way ever since.

After a few years of putting up a good face, I jumped at the chance to try to accomplish a dream I’ve had since grad school: someone should fly a capable near-infrared spectrometer to the Moon! Early in the new millennium, we got first-class science and engineering teams together to propose Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) and were selected by NASA and ISRO to fly as a guest instrument on India’s Chandrayaan-1 Mission. Thus started a great adventure and one of the most satisfying (and challenging) activities of my career.

M3 Team Members at a meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Note the Moon in the picture, our key collaborator in this adventure!

Deepak: Great turning points indeed. And I guess important lessons there for the current generation of planetary scientists. Thinking about planetary missions, has anything changed in the past four plus decades since you got into the business?

Carlè: What has changed, at that time, more universities built instruments. Now, fewer centers make instruments. It’s very difficult for young people to connect science with instruments. My experience as part of Tom McCord’s research group was very enriching – as we learned firsthand, how to put instruments on telescopes and make them work. Instruments and analysis should be integrated together but seems like a hard thing these days given the (largely) segregated nature of these two activities in US. I am not sure how it is in other space faring nations. Maybe it’s better there.

Deepak: Could you share some of the challenges faced by you in working with the community to define research priorities? Anything that you thought was a stand that was worth taking in the larger good? And any advice to the next generation of decision makers, scientists and engineers?

Carlè: We had a tough time getting spectroscopy to be recognized as a mature enough technique to get some degree of priority on planetary missions. Adding colors to the Moon through global multispectral observations took 20-30 years of scientific advocacy by numerous planetary scientists. So, I would strongly encourage the next generation to be part of various scientific committees to make a stand for your science.

Deepak: Could you walk us through some of the seemingly random events but those dots that kept connecting and defined your career evolution?

Carlè: There are many dots that seem to make perfect sense now! When I entered MIT as a student without experience, it was the early days of lunar exploration. I was encouraged to explore opportunities in the geoscience department as plans were getting firmed up for the Moonshots. I got in touch with Prof. Tom McCord (who became my Ph.D. advisor later) and he asked me to file the new images of the Moon. Looking through tons of Moon images, totally unfamiliar scenes begging for explanation, I developed a strong passion for lunar science. Another related experience later was the opportunity to work with spectra of lunar samples where huge amount of other data was being collected. I obtained hands-on experience and learned how new techniques are interrelated. Besides, my astronomy spectroscopy experience provided me the unique opportunity to argue for building the RELAB.

Deepak: Sure, an interview with Carlè Pieters would remain incomplete without discussion of Reflectance Experiment Lab (RELAB), a legacy that you helped create and which continues to serve the community. Please tell us the RELAB story.

Carlè: While at Johnson Space Center (JSC), I made the argument to create a laboratory spectrometer that mimics the geometry of remote sensing observations, that is, a bi-directional reflectance spectrometer, where illumination and collection of reflected light is carried out over very small solid angles, mimicking natural solar reflectance. This was in contrast to the laboratory hemispherical reflectance measurements that were being carried out at that time. And thus, RELAB was born.

Later, due to operational constraints, I brought RELAB with me to Brown and it has been there, ever since, serving the planetary science community and beyond.

Deepak: That’s indeed a great contribution. Do you have an unfulfilled wishes in your research career? The flag that the next generation can perhaps carry forward?

Carlè: Sure. It’s been great to be in academics but there are many things that I would like to do or hope that it’s done by the next generation. I wish to see landers at Copernicus and Theophilus craters and if possible, get samples back from there. I am very curious to find out the nature and origin of olivine and Mg-Spinel occurrences at these two craters: whether they are big chunks, part of a dike (in case of olivine lithology) or small pebbles from the deep interior or scattered debris from elsewhere. It would be very interesting to put the puzzle together…

Deepak: Shifting gears a little bit, have you experienced situations in your career, as a researcher or teacher, when society (your peers, decision makers) seem to have considered your identity as a ‘female’ over your credentials as a planetary scientist?

Carlè: Not really. Early in my career I think, I certainly got noticed more because of being a female. But, as long as I was well prepared and didn’t do anything stupid, that was an advantage. Almost all my failures were probably my own. The important thing is to keep moving.

Deepak: That’s good to know considering the fact that when you started, there were not as many females in the field. Do you think having larger number of female role models would attract a larger number of females in STEM and encourage them to stay in the field?

Carlè: Absolutely. More importantly, I feel the breadth and character of perspectives is improved with the diversity of people involved. However, the environment has to be conducive to working together. That takes forethought and planning and can’t be simply legislated. I guess, we all recognize that there are numerous differences in the society (gender being just one of them). In an ideal society, these differences are valuable and enriching assets. We should also recognize that we each have very individual weaknesses and failings. The challenge is to not confuse the two.

Deepak: Any parting thoughts, Carlè?

Carlè: It’s hard to accept that non-logical things happen every now and then. The advice that I have given myself over the years is: If you are given a lemon, make a lemonade. I still make it sometimes when the situation hands me one 😉 .

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 13, 2021 12:14 pm

    Very inspiring and so helpful to hear about the ups and downs of a successful career path! Thanks Deepak and Carle!

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