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Dr. Shannon Curry: If you like learning everyday, run a spacecraft Mission!

September 16, 2022

This interview was conducted by Kelsi Singer and Jamie O’Brien. Jamie is currently a graduate student in a joint Aerospace and Engineering Management at University of Colorado. 

Dr. Shannon Curry

Shannon Curry is a planetary physicist and Assistant Deputy Director at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.  She is involved in many spacecraft missions and concepts, and last year was named as the Principal Investigator of the NASA Mars Scout MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) mission.  Her research focus is on terrestrial planetary atmospheres, primarily in atmospheric escape and dynamics at weakly magnetized planets. She is also involved in instrument development and mission concept development for future flight exploration of the solar system. Other collaborations include serving as the Project Scientist on ESCAPADE (a Phase C NASA SIMPLEx-II mission) and as a science team member for Parker Solar Probe (PSP) missions, as well as a collaborator on NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) program.

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

I have always been one of those kids who found looking up at the stars fascinating.  I went to undergrad at Tufts University in Boston, and majored in astrophysics with an art history and studio art minor.  During that time, I did a semester “abroad” in Arizona, doing observing at the Columbia observatory at the biosphere and taking coursework.  After undergrad I wanted to take some time to figure out what do with my life, and I took six months off and did bartending.  Next, I started engineering work at Lockheed because I was looking for some more tangible projects.  The engineering component of being able to solve problems appealed to me and I thought it would be a great way to use math and physics in an applied problem.  And an opportunity to work there came along in the defense sector.  But eventually I decided that was not the best fit for me and I wanted to move back to science. 

A skill that is very handy from the engineering world is to have schedules and deliverables.  This gives you an idea of how to have a straightforward answer with a clear direction. 

2. How did you go from your PhD to your current institution and position?

I went to university of Michigan for my PhD and I worked on the upper atmosphere of Mars, modeling what the MAVEN instruments would observe.  During grad school, I also had a NASA GSRP (Graduate Student Research Program) fellowship with the Goddard magnetometry team, which was a great introduction to a NASA site as well as mission development.

After graduating, I had an outstanding postdoc mentor at UC Berkeley, Janet Luhmann, who is the PI of Stereo and was the Deputy PI of MAVEN.  She really took me on, and I started working as a MAVEN postdoc with her.  In the first year of my postdoc, I got to go to the MAVEN launch (in 2013) and after that it was kind of a crazy first 6 months.  We realized right after launch that comet Siding Springs would be coming very close to Mars and the spacecraft, so we had to decide how to handle that.  We also had several massive coronal mass ejections we had to deal with and analyze as well. Being part of a mission, I got to understand not just the science but also the science and engineering.  Bruce Jakosky, the original MAVEN PI was a also a great PI to learn under, which got me thinking about how to create my own mission concepts. Eventually I got more and more involved in different missions and once I had that experience, Bruce asked me to take over for him.

If you like learning, missions are exactly that, you have to learn a lot fast – MAVEN has been a great opportunity to do that.  And while I put an enormous amount of work in, so much of my career path has been formed by really spectacular mentors, and I try to pay that forward. 

3. What are you most excited about for the future of the MAVEN mission?

The sun is getting more active as we go into solar cycle 25, and there many solar storms that are constantly coming off the sun.  Terrestrial atmospheres are very responsive to those solar events, and that is one of the main ways that atmospheres erode over time.  And MAVEN is able to observe both the sun and Mars’ atmosphere simultaneously to study that response.  Additionally, Mars’ dust cycle will overlap with the peak of solar cycle 25, and we will have extreme conditions on Mars, and that will drive our understanding of how the atmosphere responds. 

I am also excited that is such an all-star team- I am genuinely humbled to work with a team of this caliber.  These people are both my friends and my colleagues, and am impressed by them every day. 

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

Especially for early career people starting out, I wish I had been more specific about my own travel budget.  Travel to conferences isn’t just a luxury, it is how we build our reputations and find collaborators.  I also wish I pushed harder for relocation expenses.  Had that been clarified better before I started, my first year would have been smoother.  

I also encourage early career people to speak up- if the pay seems unreasonable and you don’t think you can make it work, say so.  Usually there is a little bit of wiggle room.  If someone can’t afford a postdoc, then they shouldn’t be hiring one.  Some places have standardized salary ranges, but others are more fluid.  If it is not going to work for you financially, don’t do it.

5. 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?

Take the time to figure out your organization and efficiency strategies.  Use tools and accept help when it comes to getting organized.  Also learn how to delegate (micromanaging will be the death of you), so use the people on your team, and you will still have plenty of things you are doing yourself.  There was a time when I stretched myself way to thin, and the burnout came very quickly.  So sometimes have to hit reset.  There are always going to be times when you have to work extra hard, but you still need some reset time, because working yourself to the bone all the time is just not sustainable. 

For me, there are lots of things I want to do, but I don’t get to all of it and am still working on communicating that.  There is only so much you can do in a day- people who are really stressed out and overworked slip up and make errors, it that is not a good way of working for anyone.  You also have to carve out time for physical and mental health.  When you are happy and like what you are doing it is easier to keep your energy up. 

At the end of the day, if you have good intentions and you are doing your best and working hard, that has to be enough.

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

Don’t be afraid to cold e-mail someone or walk up to someone at a conference and introduce yourself.  All of us were there once.  I remember doing my undergrad research at the CFA at Harvard and I was so intimidated by the big colloquiums there that I would stand in the back- I didn’t even know if I was allowed to drink the coffee.  A few years ago, I got invited as a speaker to their colloquium and it was not until I was back in that same room that I realized I had come full circle and “smiled out loud” so to speak.  Be proud of yourself and take it one step at a time, you can get there. 

Thanks to Shannon for sharing these wondering insights and we all look forward to the future science done with MAVEN data!

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