You probably know from reading these that we like to start with your early years, where you were born, something about your family, if you have siblings, your parents and what they did, and mixed in with that, how early was it in your life that you developed an interest in what you’ve pursued academically and now in your career?
Let’s see. I was born in Chicago, Illinois, but I grew up in Wisconsin. I left Chicago at, I think, six months old. My parents: my dad is a radiologist and the reason we were in Chicago was for his residency. My mom has a degree in English literature and teaching. I have two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother, so I’m smack in the middle.
And you know, I can’t even remember when I first started getting interested in science, and in particular in astronomy and planetary science. It’s just something I was always really interested in. I have this vague memory of like third grade and having to do a report on a planet and instead of doing just one, I did all of them! (laughs) So that was probably a hint to my parents, that it was something that captured my imagination. I was just really lucky that I had parents who were excited to encourage me to pursue science and not a more practical career path. They just let me explore all the things I was interested in.
You’re reminding me of one of our earlier interviews, where the young researcher said she was interested in meteorology, especially clouds. She remembers going on Sunday drives out in the Midwest and she would sit in the car looking up at the clouds and she got very interested in them. And then at some point she realized, oh my goodness, there are clouds on other planets! Isn’t that interesting? So she went down that path and became a scientist, researching planetary atmospheres. It’s interesting what triggers an interest, which is why parents expose children to all kinds of things, music, art, nature, and science. You never know what’s going to click with them.
That is something my dad, with sort of a science mind, still talks to me about, like, “How do you apply radiology imaging to imaging done outside of our planet?” And my mom is very much into the arts. She took me to all the plays and had me play violin and participate in forensics and community theater, all of that. So I had a nice balance of different things.
You did and you’re very fortunate. As you grew up and got into school, there was a basic curriculum early on, but then there were times when you had to make some choices in terms of majors, courses of study, and so forth. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Sure. I had sort of a winding path, I think, to my major and ultimately to my PhD. I knew I was interested in science, but I didn’t know really where I was interested. So in undergraduate I was deciding between a neuroscience degree or a physics and astronomy degree. I toyed with linguistics because I’ve always loved languages and I thought, hey, that’s the “sciency” side of language. Ultimately, I got my undergraduate degree in astronomy and microbiology. I think I realized that I really was interested in planetary habitability, but I didn’t know what particular side of that, whether I was more interested in the broad, galactic point of view or the really narrow extremophile point of view. So I had these two scales of science that I was looking at. And it really took until grad school to kind of narrow in on what part I was most interested in. But it gave me some cool opportunities in undergrad to do a lot of different research. I was working in a leaf cutter ant lab and also doing extra galactic astronomy research, so I got to toy around a bit and see what was most interesting.
Science is a very broad category and it gives you, especially in space science, lots of options everywhere you go. And then at some point you wound up at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for your PhD?
OK. And then you found your way to NASA Ames. Can you tell us how that happened? Was it just the posting of a postdoctoral opportunity or did you have a connection from someone here?
I had a connection. I was lucky enough to participate in some panels as a graduate student, and at conferences I started communicating and talking with Bob Haberle and Melinda Kahre here at Ames. And as I approached the end of my PhD, I started talking to them about opportunities and they pointed me to the NPP program. So I applied to work with Bob Haberle to kind of extend the Mars Climate Modeling Center’s work looking at exoplanets, Mars-like exoplanets.
Sounds like a perfect fit.
Yeah, it’s been fun to take what I learned about Mars, and this is again, kind of an extrapolation from smaller scale. We had really fine, really detailed experiments to look at present day Mars because we knew a lot about it. And I got to kind of broaden it, to say “Well, what if we were in this completely different environment? How can we apply what we learn from what’s happening on Mars today to a different environment, a different solar system, a different planetary type?”
Right. So maybe this is a good time to have you talk a little bit about the work that you do, including why it’s important enough that NASA is willing to ask the American taxpayer to subsidize it. Why would they be willing to support the kind of work that you do?
I think that’s a really good question and it’s something I think about because as an employee of NASA, through the Bay Area Environmental Research program, it’s my obligation as a scientist to contribute to the American people. And I want our research to be valuable to them and have, if not direct applications to their day-to-day life, still something that brings a greater sense of how our universe works and a greater sense of wonder about the world we live in.
I work on both Mars, present day Mars and Paleo Mars, and exoplanets. I think those two have very different applications. When we think about exoplanets, it’s really about learning more about how our universe works and where we fit in to the broader universe. So those fundamental questions: Are we alone? What does it mean to have life develop? What are the fundamental requirements for life to develop? That’s really what I’m looking at with these exoplanets to see what kind of environments might we expect, how do we identify those environments and could they be habitable? For present day Mars, it’s a little bit closer to home in the sense that it’s our next door neighbor, but it also has a little bit more direct application. it’s interesting just to know how a planet works, but also a lot of the work we do with our climate models is to support mission development and mission work. So EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) can rely on some of our results. I recently did a really fun project looking at the feasibility of wind energy for human missions to Mars to see if that could be something that would aid in energy stability.
I listened to your Abscicon talk about that, and it was fascinating to me. I hadn’t realized that there might be a way to augment energy availability on a planet so that exploration could be better developed and supported, with more opportunities to go to more places. And that’s very interesting because, as we’ve seen the movies, there’s wind on Mars! (laughs)
Exactly. There’s wind, but it’s very easy to dismiss it since the atmosphere is so thin and the winds aren’t that strong. But the technology that we develop on Earth has gotten better and better. There’s opportunity to apply what we’ve learned on Earth to other planets.
So would the general value be considered in support of NASA’s strategic mission for exploration? Or is it more specific than that? Does it tie into the search for life?
Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. I mean, one of the goals of the current administration is to explore the potential for habitability and life and a lot of my exoplanet work fits directly into that goal and helps prioritize future mission development in order to evaluate that potential? But then one of my favorite things about astronomy is still just the sense of wonder you can get from recognizing how much there is in the universe and how different things can be and how almost anything you can think of is out there. In some respects I feel like my research can contribute to that excitement for all ages, especially for kids coming into STEM or interested in it in the future.
Has there been, in your so far relatively short career, some unusual or interesting finding, such as the wind idea, that’s cool? Anything like that that you want to talk about?
Yeah, for sure. There’s been a couple, actually. My PhD is in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, so I was in a group that was very focused on Earth science and on really small scale evaluations of the Earth’s climate. And one of the most valuable experiences I got out of that was learning how to bridge the gap between Earth science and planetary science and take the things we learn from Earth and think about how they could be applicable to a different planetary environment. And two of my papers are directly related to that. The wind energy came from, the inspiration for that arose from a colleague’s presentation on wind evaluation for earth using a global climate model. And my paper on cloud formation seeded on micrometeoritic dust was inspired by polar noctilucent clouds on Earth. It’s a type of cloud that we see today in the northern hemisphere summer pole that form on these, just basically on the debris of meteors burning up in the atmosphere. And we thought, “Hey, Mars is going through that same sort of cloud of interplanetary debris, and maybe that could be responsible for some of the clouds that we’ve observed but are really difficult to replicate in models”.
I’d like to ask what a typical day is like for you. We’ve had to qualify that because of the pandemic that’s ongoing but It looks like you’re back in the office now?
Yeah, I’m in the office today.
Have you able to do your work pretty much remotely without much problem? Do you have to be here to work in a lab or something like that.
I’m lucky that as a climate modeler, most of my work is computer work, so I just have to remotely log into the NASA supercomputer and that gives me the opportunity to work pretty easily from most locations. But it has been nice to get back into the office and be able to have conversations with colleagues that really spark inspiration and ideas and excitement.
That’s something that a number of researchers have mentioned that they miss more than anything. There’s a lot of convenience associated with working from home, especially if you have a commute or childcare obligations, something like that.
But you do miss the interactions, the collaborations, and the fellowship of your science colleagues. It’s astounding to me that there are some new hires in the last few years who have never been on the Ames campus yet. That’s both amazing and sad. Moving on, what do you enjoy most and least about your work?
Oh, that’s a hard one. I think what I enjoy most is related to what we were just saying, the sense of excitement and exploration when you’re really brainstorming new ideas with colleagues and seeing what everybody else is doing. I love going to scientific conferences and seeing all of the amazing work that people have been up to and having an opportunity to have these off the cuff conversations about how their work can relate to my work and vice versa. I think as in any job there’s always the mundanity of everyday tasks that can be tiring. As a global climate modeler, I have to deal with debugging code and that can be terrible.
I imagine it can.
Many a month in my graduate studies was spent trying to figure out what the hell was going on in this giant code. You learn a lot. That’s probably a low point, but is followed by the high point when you finally figure it out.
I can certainly relate to that, however you’re one of the few who hasn’t mentioned the bureaucratic paperwork that you have to do all the time and that’s probably. . .
I think I try not to think about it! (laughs).
. . . probably because it goes without saying. But it’s obvious from your enthusiasm and just your whole demeanor that you’re happy with where you’ve landed, career wise. You’re excited about the things you’re doing and everything. But have you ever thought about, if you weren’t a research scientist for NASA, what your dream job might have been?
I have thought about that actually. I said I had a lot of indecision early in my career about what I wanted to do, I think if I wasn’t in planetary science, I would be in linguistics because I love languages and that’s one of the things I still miss because I would take all the language classes I could. So I always imagined I could have worked as a translator for the UN or something.
That’s interesting, and perhaps comes from your mom’s side of the family.
Yes! And then of course, I have a friend and we always said one day we would open a tea shop in a college town. So we’ll see if that ever comes to pass! (laughs)
I always thought that foreign languages were intimidating and then I wound up having to learn one and I realized that it’s only a matter of memorization. You just memorize more words for things. You already have huge vocabulary built up over the years from a little child, and if you just learn more words for things, it doesn’t seem as daunting, at least to me.
What I’ve always liked about languages is that they make you think in slightly different ways because of the organization of the grammar and how you communicate. It’s different enough that it changes your perspective and in some sense I think coding is like that. It’s a very logical foreign language.
Yes, coding is analogous to a language. it is a language. How many languages have you picked up over the years?
Well, a couple. I mean, I’m only really good at maybe one or two besides English. I can speak reasonable French, I can get by. And if I practiced, my Spanish isn’t too bad. I’ve taken courses in Russian and Italian. I took a class in a language called Nahuatl, which is the Aztec language. And I took old English, which was very hard. I think that was the hardest one I’ve done. And I’ve toyed with trying to learn Swedish, that’s sort of on my bucket list of ones to learn.
Have you taken any of the root languages, the fundamental languages like Latin or anything of that type?
You know, I haven’t. The closest was old English. But I haven’t gotten around to Latin.
I took Latin in high school and I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I did because it exemplifies the things you’ve talked about, the value of better understanding your own language.
How other languages relate to each other and how words get to mean certain things.
Latin is always very interesting. From that you can see how words come together and the syntactical history of the word, and that’s great. But when I was first learning, I just wanted to talk to people, and there’s not much of an opportunity for that with Latin.
I’m tempted to interject a thought about the biblical story of the Tower of Babel because if there was going to be a way to interrupt what the people were trying to do, it would be hard to beat causing language confusion so they couldn’t understand each other, couldn’t communicate any more. It was a very effective means of disrupting their work.
So you’re on your way. Obviously you’re in the middle of a very successful and productive career. What advice would you give to a young up and coming PhD student, for example, or someone who would like to have a career like you are having now?
One thing is to follow your passions. Find the thing that you’re interested in and, don’t let somebody tell you it’s not practical or that you should be doing something differently. And also, and this is, I think, more important, is allow something to be difficult. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I always say I was naturally better at linguistics than astronomy. Physics is hard for me. It took a lot of work for me to really dig into it and understand it. I remember looking at people around me and they just seemed to get it immediately. I thought, maybe I’m not cut out for this field. Maybe I don’t have the innate talent to do it, but I think struggling and really thinking through something, can give you an interesting perspective on it, and a really strong base to build your science on. So the struggle is important and it’s OK.
That’s quite profound, actually. I remember talking with a guidance counselor who had been asked by someone who wanted to pursue a medical degree but was intimidated by the fact that it would take all those extra years, postgraduate years and then an internship, 5 or 6 years before they can actually become a practicing physician. The counselor’s question back to that person was: “Yes, but that time is still going to pass. You’re still going to be somewhere at that point. You’re not sacrificing those years. You’re just choosing your destination”.
And that just told me: “Don’t look at it as something that takes too long because you’re going to live those years anyway. It’s just a matter of where are you will be at the end of those years.
I like that perspective. I’ll remember that when I’m struggling through the work now! (laughs)
Would you like to share anything about your personal life, your family, kids, pets, trips, hobbies, things you like to do?
I have been married six years now and we have a 1-1/2 year old, which has been new and exciting. He’s a handful and a lot of fun. And we have a great and very energetic Husky mix and she keeps our pet life interesting.
Yeah. So that’s our little family.
Talents? Are you musical? What do you like to do?
I’ve played violin for, I don’t want to betray my age, something like 30 years now. (laughs) So that is something I still enjoy. And as a family, we like going hiking.
I like that, too.
Back in 2020 I took up ice skating because you know, why not? I always wanted to learn how to figure skate, so my husband got me lessons for Christmas and when I have free time, I try to do that still.
That’s wonderful. Our daughter was interested in ice skating for a while, and that was back when there were ice skating rinks in the area. There was one in Sunnyvale and one in Palo Alto, I think it was called Winter Lodge, and it is still there on Middlefield Road.
There’s one still down in San Jose, so I try to go to that one. It’s like the Sharks training facility, I think.
There used to be one in the bottom level of Vallco shopping center in Cupertino, but it went away. The whole shopping center went away!
I’m not very good at all, but it’s amazing the joy you get out of something like figuring out how to skate backwards. (laughs)
Well, the one thing it’ll make you do is appreciate when you watch Olympic level figure skaters and the things that they do on the ice. When I go around my ankles are tilted inward. I can’t even stand up straight on them! (laughs)
So any other sports that you might have done along the way or were interested in?
Yeah, I did a bunch of rock climbing as an undergraduate but haven’t had much opportunity to do it out here. I’ve skied my whole life. But since my son was born my free time has been severely limited.
You can be forgiven for that! But a picture was posted on one of your websites of you climbing some rocks that looked like steps.
That was Iceland.
Oh yes, you did say it was Iceland. That was fascinating. And then you were laying in the crook of a kind of an arch and I was trying to guess what the drop off was on the side that I couldn’t see, because I don’t care for heights too much. Where was that?
That was Arches National Park out in Utah and the other side, I think, was more perilous than I probably would do today, but for some reason I like really high heights. I find it very relaxing in a terrifying way! (laughs)
Yeah, it’s terrifying, I would agree with that. So maybe we’ve sort of covered the basics, but once we talk about your work and your life, we like to ask “what do you do for fun?”
It’s changed a lot since having kids, but in a good way. I think having a kid makes you slow down and appreciate things that you wouldn’t have recognized or paid attention to otherwise. Now I get a lot of joy out of looking at the rocks on the sidewalk and at the plants that are growing, the squirrel running down the street. Things that I would usually overlook, but to be honest, that’s a lot of my life right now. Very slow walks led by an 18 month old!
That’s a great perspective because yes, when you walk with a child, all of a sudden you realize they’ve stopped and notice what has caught their attention. it’s usually a bug, or a little rock, or something that that we totally missed. And those things can be just as fascinating as the planet Mars.
I don’t think the he enjoys it when I try to explain Mars geology to him at his age. (laughs)
But the time will come. One of the things we ask about is what accomplishment are you the most proud of that’s not related to your NASA work?
Oh, that’s a hard one! I am proud, and this is maybe a cop out easy answer, but I’m proud of just our family and being able to prioritize or balance the work, being focused on science but also having this family that I love so much, being able to participate with them. And then I think I’ve had to be resilient a lot in my career. I’ve had ups and downs and challenges and have needed to keep focused. It’s kind of like what I said before: that just because something is hard doesn’t mean that it’s not worth your time. If you’re not immediately successful it can be really disappointing but it’s not the end of the world. You can keep pushing through and keep working and can get somewhere, if not external success, then inside. And I think that has been something I’ve really learned, particularly as somebody who was a perfectionist growing up. Learning that failures are part of life and challenges are worthwhile.
Since you play the violin are you particularly drawn to classical music, or are there other musical genres that are of equal or greater interest?
I love all of it. I’ve listened to a lot of classical. Beethoven is my favorite, even though he’s a lot of people’s favorite. I lived in Paris for six months and I would go to the Louvre statue garden and just listen to an entire Beethoven Symphony. It was just my favorite thing to do. But I also really like bluegrass music. I like folk and acoustic. My husband is really into hard rock, so I’ve been learning how to appreciate that. We have a very musical household.
You have a well-rounded family musically, that’s for sure. And how about your reading interest? What book might we find on your night stand or in your office library?
That’s a great question. I read a lot of fiction and recently I’ve been getting into the genre that people call “cozy mysteries”. I’ve been reading Maisie Dobbs, which is sort of low stakes detective mysteries, not too scary, but just enough to give you a bit of a mystery to follow through on and explore.
That’s exploration in its own way, isn’t it? Who or what has inspired you, or does inspire you, as you move through life?
I’ve been lucky that there’s a lot of people in my life who are inspirational. Just colleagues, you know, seeing the path and the career that they’ve taken and the work that they do every day and the way that they approach scientific thought, I was always very inspired by how Bob Haberle could think through problems and how he could speak to the problems that he was working through so eloquently. I’ve always been inspired by both of my parents and their approach to the world and now to their approach to parenting, as I try to learn my way through that. I’ve also been very fortunate that I found a partner who has a unique perspective on the world that’s different than mine, so I can learn from him and be inspired by how he approaches the world and its challenges. It’s not hard to find people to look to and say, “Wow, I need to learn something from them because they’re doing something right.”
You’re right and the fact is, at least the way I look at it, everybody is my superior in some way that I can learn from.
I think that’s a really great perspective to have.
I mentioned earlier that we’d like to include images in the post that we finally put together for you and those may certainly include ones related to your work. They can also include, family things, anything that you’ve talked about: your interests, maybe you playing a violin or taking a walk with your son, anything that tends to illustrate the things you’ve talked about but is there a particularly favorite image that you would want to include? I see a couple of pictures behind you on the wall of your office.
Yeah. So you can see off to the corner, there’s this series of like, travel posters, basically for different planets in our solar system.
Are those little children in front of a planet? Is that what I’m seeing?
Yeah, that’s HAT-P-11 b (a Neptune like gas giant planet), so it’s a hot Neptune. If you traveled there it would be quite bright and hot. (laughs)
So the meaning of the poster is exploration?
It’s meant to be exploration. It’s meant to be, I guess sometime in our, in our maybe distant future where you might have a travel agent suggesting that you go on a voyage across the solar system and hit all the major planets. I have three in my house, I have a Mars, a solar system tour, and then one for Kepler 16. I’ve always really liked them. And then from a more or less artistic side, I guess I always really like the Mars Express images from the ESA mission because I just think they’re amazing. Every time I see them, I’m like, how are these real photos? They’re so amazing.
Well, feel free to include any of those that are meaningful to you because knowing what you’re interested in and your perspective on things helps us better understand you and that is the point. So include those as well as any others that you’d like. I always think the more pictures the better. They draw attention and help us understanding you better.
And also if there is a favorite quote that you’d like to have included you can share it now or you could add it later when you edit the transcript.
No, I can think of two off the top and they relate to two different kinds of perspectives on life. One is kind of related to the challenges we’ve talked about and I don’t even know who said it. it’s that “There are only two possible outcomes for any endeavor: success or learning”.
Oh, I like that.
Yeah, and that was very comforting to me for a lot of my graduate work and even now.
What a great perspective, because at the very end you’re expecting the word “failure”, but you’re not getting that. You’re getting another positive, two positives. And I like that.
And the other one is from a very interesting documentary about Antarctica by Werner Herzog, He showed that at McMurdo Station there is a wooden fence, and carved into it by someone is the quote: “I Sink into Bliss”. And I don’t know, it resonated with me as a reminder to sort of be “in the moment”, recognize the joys of the present moment, and really appreciate the good things going on around you.
That’s a great thought! Mark, did you want to say something?
Yes, regarding your comment on the your toddler noticing things like bugs. Does it expand your view on sciences when your kids ask you questions about the bugs and the rocks they find?
Theo’s not quite verbal yet, but I can see that in the future. As you look at what’s going on in the world it can make you see these small details and start questioning your perspective or how you looked at it prior and you start seeing things. Like when we were on a hike and he was digging in the sand and the top layer was wet, and the bottom layer was dry, and I started thinking about Mars regolith, and the RSL’s and how that could contribute to dust lifting. So, you know, it’s always on. I’m sure I’ll annoy my kids in the future, like “Please stop, Mom! (laughs) At least I like to think so.
Well, he is going to be as fortunate growing up with you and your husband as you have been with your parents. A child’s curiosity and imagination are delightful to behold. Is there anything that you wish we had asked that we didn’t?
No, I think you really covered the broad range of it. I guess since this is a public facing website too, I would just encourage anybody who is interested, that this is a possibility. Just because it’s not your typical career path doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for it, if you’re interested in it. See where it lands you and pursue it. I like to see especially kids, you know, growing up in middle school and high school and I think they don’t always recognize that this is an option. It’s something you can do in your career and so realize that there are a lot of options out there.
Thank you for taking the time to sit for this brief interview. I think it will be a great addition to our series.
OK. That’s awesome. Thank you for reaching out to me.
(Interview conducted by Fred Van Wert and Mark Vorobets)
Michael C. Wong (photocredit)
First published at NASA.gov