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Dr. Jennifer Whitten – Be open to varied training methods, you never know where they might lead!

August 3, 2021

This interview was conducted by Mikayla Huffman (see more information at the end of this interview) and Kelsi Singer. 

Dr. Jennifer Whitten is an Assistant Professor at Tulane University.  She has worked on many missions, including VERITAS, Moon Diver Mission, SHARAD, and MESSENGER.  Her Postdoc was at the Smithsonian Institution, where she analyzed the radar properties of rocky bodies.  Dr. Whitten has also done field research in both Iceland and the Antarctic.  Her primary research interests include volcanism, impact processes, geomorphology, and radar science. 

Jennifer attended William and Mary for her undergraduate work, and Mikayla is currently studying there, so that was a fun connection for this interview! 😊

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

I had a very enthusiastic high school Earth Science teacher who was also really liked astronomy.  He developed a few labs using a pre-cursor to the Eyes on the Solar System software, and you could fly around the solar system putting in people or other objects for scale.  I thought that was engaging but didn’t pursue the subject afterwards.  I was in a science magnet high school and so I took a lot of science in high school. In college, I wanted to go a different direction and so I majored in both Art History and Geology in undergrad at William and Mary.  I really liked the puzzle of putting together the natural observations.  In my surface processes class the professor put up a picture of landslide and asked us to describe it.  At the end of class he asked us what planet it was on, and we all guessed Earth, but actually it was a very high-resolution picture of Mars.  And that was my aha moment – I could study geology on other planets! I decided to go to grad school in planetary science.  I felt that there was a combination of image analysis from my art history side and the science side.

  • What skills did you pick up in undergrad that have served you the best during your career?  

Something that the department at William and Mary does well is building confidence in their students.  It is a pretty small department, and everyone was very supportive.  They taught us how to apply to grad school, they offered to read over my applications.  And it was a really rigorous program, you have to do a lot of speaking in front of your peers and independent research projects.  I chose to do a senior thesis that required me to stand in front of a panel of faculty and defend my research, and that was one of the more terrifying, but rewarding, experiences of my life.  By the time I had to do my qualifying exams in grad school I had that experience behind me, which was a big help.  Field trips were a big part of the curriculum and they were also fun and exciting.  I think it helped to build a community and attract me to geology. 

  • What was your first job after graduate school?

My first job was a postdoc at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in their research department at the center for Earth and Planetary Studies.  Switching from a university setting to a museum setting was interesting and fun.  It was exhilarating to walk to my office through the hall of rockets, and I got to do that every day. I got to interact with a lot of the different research departments and I participated heavily in outreach which allowed me to experience communicating to the general public at all ages. 

  • How did you become involved in field work?

Starting in undergrad I got to experience field trips associated with my classes and field work related to my senior thesis.  In grad school I had the opportunity to attend the Planetary Volcanology Field School in Hawaii, where I experienced firsthand many different volcanic features, like sinuous rilles, lava channels, cinder cones, and splatter cones. The last day of the workshop was spent validating the geologic map that you created with different remote sensing datasets. That was a powerful experience, and showed me just how different a surface can appears in remote sensing data versus “on the ground”.  I also went to Antarctica in 2011-2012 field season and worked in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which are a Martian analogue.  That was largely facilitated by my graduate advisor, Dr. Jim Head, and my experience with sampling rocks for measurement using cosmogenic radionuclides, skills I developed through my undergraduate thesis working with Dr. Greg Hancock.      

  • How did you choose your current institution? (Tulane University)

I have a two-body problem.  My husband and I were applying for permanent positions in cities that had opportunities for both of us, and we both got an offer for a tenure track position at Tulane, so we took that. Even though there isn’t a large planetary presence at the university, there are NASA centers in the greater New Orleans area (Michoud and Stennis), and many faculty conduct research related to surfaces processes, which overlaps nicely with my own research interests. We are both happy we were able to find a situation that works well for both of us.

  • Is there anything you are happy you negotiated for, or anything you wish you had negotiated for?

I was mostly concerned about not shorting myself during the negotiation.  I was fortunate that I had several friends who had just gone through the negotiation processes and was able to talk to them about their strategies and what they asked for as part of their startup package.  My best suggestion is to ask for as much you can reasonably justify for your startup.  You may not use the money for exactly what you asked for in the end, but as long as you spend your funds on things that support your research you won’t be held to exactly what you said.  Call on friends who are experts in a given area (say IT or data visualization) and ask them what equipment you might need.  Just ask.  You’ll probably hear about something that hadn’t even occurred to you. Also, think about research areas that you want to expand into and any equipment or support you might need to successfully pursue that avenue of research. I tried to think of opportunities or time, in addition to tangible items.  Maybe you want a mini-sabbatical earlier on or you want the flexibility of a teaching reprieve in the event of family or life changes. I am interested in participating in mission work, so I had it written that if I part of a selected mission proposal I could take a teaching reprieve when appropriate.  It is good to get a written record of the things you ask for and are approved in advance.  They might say no to some things, but it is still good to ask for reasonable things.

  • 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?

Time management is still something that I work on, and I’m always trying out different techniques. To stay productive at the office, I try to recognize what time of the day I’m productive at certain tasks (like writing in the mornings) and when I’m no longer being productive and switching to another task. With COVID, the lines between work and life have blurred even more for me.  I know that I am not someone who would be productive if I work every day of the week. As much as I love what I do, I can’t do it all the time and stay productive.  I need some time off to recharge.  I got good at leaving work at work during my postdoc, and then starting as faculty I had to re-find that groove with planning and teaching classes, mentoring grad students and still doing research.  Generally, I try to only have a few discrete tasks that I need to do after normal work hours, rather than a seemingly endless task (like I will only put on my list to answer a few e-mails, not all of them). Sometimes I don’t do any additional work after leaving the office. I also try to cultivate my interests outside of work.  For example, I do yoga a couple of times a week, and try to take classes in the late afternoon to use as a transition from work to home.

Thanks to Jennifer for this amazing interview!

About the interviewers: Mikayla Huffman is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary on the honors track for physics with minors in math and geology. She was the founding student member of the William & Mary Planetary Research Group where she is currently the lead on an impact crater modeling project. She worked with Dr. Singer on a project to characterize secondary impact cratering on the Moon and Mercury and also has helped out at JHU APL processing data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. She is currently interning at NASA, working on comet spectroscopy. Mikayla plans to pursue a planetary science Ph.D. in the fall of 2022. In her free time, she loves working on her 3D printer, caring for her ball python and bearded dragon, and playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Dr. Kelsi Singer is a Senior Research Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute office in Boulder, CO. She is also a Deputy Project Scientist on New Horizons and studies impact cratering and other geologic features across the solar system :).

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