Monday, February 27, 2017

My First Science Lab: Freedom, Confidence, & Proving Them Wrong



A week ago, the Astralytical space resources laboratory officially opened. My lab. This was an unexpectedly emotional moment for me. There were people in my life who planted the seed of doubt in my head. To prove them wrong about me was a moment of triumph that I celebrated as a small achievement in practice, but symbolically meant scaling my imposter syndrome mountain.

I ran a science lab periously, but it wasn't my lab. As a doctoral student in planetary sciences and my advisor's first grad student in this lab, I assisted him in getting the ball rolling and managing the undergraduate students. I gained experience running a science lab and conducting experiments. Even though I directed the day-to-day activities in the lab, I didn't direct the science. I wasn't in charge. Worse, I was bullied by a fellow lab manager, which added to the imposter syndrome mountain.

I've previously written about my decision to leave grad school all-but-dissertation (twice!), meaning I've twice taken all courses needed for a doctorate, passed major exams, and completed a substantial amount of new, independent research in high-energy astrophysics and experimental planetary science, but I left before completing and defending my dissertation. I've had academics as recently as a year ago tell me that I'd never be able to direct my own lab, apply for research funding, or become a principal investigator (PI) on a mission without the Doctor title.

Directing my own lab is the first step in proving to them that their academic path is not superior to my path and in fact my path is best for me. A well known flaw in academic advising is the bias professors have when guiding students in career planning. Academia was best for the academics, so they assume it's best for everyone. Academia has never been my goal from the start. In undergrad I decided to pave my own way, regardless of what others think. This professor who doesn't know me thinks I need his credentials in order to direct my own research? Watch me prove him wrong.

In 2015 and early 2016, I contributed to the beginnings of a research group focused on using fake Mars dirt (regolith) to grow plants, inspired by the story The Martian. I attended meetings and a workshop, contributing what little I could, but I could not get involved in the actual research. The group couldn't afford to pay for individuals outside of NASA KSC and the partnering university. I was told that they may get funds in time. So I waited and waited, delaying my own research with the hope of joining their group. The funds never arrived, at least not before I moved out of state.

Around that same time, I was collaborating with a former NASA colleague who had started his own business to mine and use space resources. He didn't want to get me involved until he had funding. He had planned to apply for NASA funding, but the call for proposals was repeatedly delayed. And so I waited and waited while my colleague was delayed in even applying for potential funds.

Waiting, waiting, waiting to work on others' research and not working on my own research.

The biggest piece of advice I'd give to my past student self would be: Don't wait to ask for permission. A consequence of our outdated educational system is the constant pressure to obey, conform, raise hands, ask permission, don't move forward until authority figures give the okay. That thinking held me back in undergrad and early grad school as I struggled to define who I was and who I wanted to become. I could have and perhaps should have gone farther, faster, if I had been empowered to move at my own pace in my own direction instead of waiting and seeking approval.

My first full-time career position was short-lived because of this constraining culture. As I quickly learned and excelled at my job, I felt the pull to learn and do more. I tried repeated to assist in other ways, collaborate in other departments, be innovative and self-starting. I asked permission, even gained it in some cases. But at every attempt to act, I was ignored, discouraged, even reprimanded. By the end, I was greatly underutilized, caged in my box, and disheartened. It's no surprised that when I finally gained freedom in my next position, I grew and soared.

That's what the Astralytical scientific and analysis work means to me: freedom. I no longer have to ask permission from anyone to pursue what's interesting and beneficial to me and to the space community I'm a part of. As recently as last month, a client tried to dictate what I can and can't do in my own business (unrelated to his business). I'm sorry, but it doesn't work that way. Not only can I run my own science lab, write my own industry reports, conduct my own research, dive into space policy initiatives, and assist various clientele, I no longer have to ask permission from anyone to do so. I'm free to be an American entrepreneur.

Of course, I have my husband to thank for supporting me in my endeavors. Without his encouragement and support, I couldn't have gotten Astralytical to where it is today.

Regolith - pretending I have dirt from another world.

Shifting gears, I'll give you an overview of what the modest Astralytical lab will focus on initially. I'm returning to my planetary science roots. My current research is a derivative of my doctoral research at UCF, but with added components that I didn't get a chance to study previously. I'm currently resource limited, so I don't have all the lab equipment that I'd like, but I'll build it up over time.

Regolith (dirt, dust, and soil) on other planetary bodies is different from regolith on our own planet Earth. But we can use Earth regolith to simulate what the surfaces of other worlds look like, move like, and contain. I'm using regolith simulants to explore the physics of other worlds without physically being there, focusing in particular in Earth's Moon, Mars, Martian moons, and asteroids. Additionally, I'm adding different amounts of water ice to the regolith, because the worlds I'm interested in are cold and contain trace amounts of water.

In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) means using the resources of a location instead of bringing resources to that location from elsewhere. It's widely believed that ISRU is the key to sustained exploration and settlement of space and other worlds. But ISRU has not been as widely studied as it needs to be in order to prepare us for a sustained space presence. My research studying icy regolith is a step in determining how we can use the dirt on other worlds to our benefit.

My lab is under Earth's gravity (1 g), but eventually I'd like to explore how the icy regolith acts in reduced gravity (analogous to Moon or Mars gravity) and microgravity (close to 0 g, analogous to space). I've flown two “zero G” parabolic flight campaigns and, when I was pregnant, I worked ground operations for a third. I'd love to fly my own experiment on a parabolic flight and perhaps even in low Earth orbit someday. If all goes well, I'll apply for funding to do so in the next couple of years.

The research possibilities ahead of me are endless, and even more inspiring to me because they are my possibilities. With my own research, I don't need to wait for or ask permission from another to do what interests me. I can even do something completely different without having to explain myself. I want to fly my own high-altitude balloon flight and carry a payload up to the stratosphere, but for what scientific reason, I'm not sure yet. I'll figure it out in time. I don't need to justify it to anyone (unless I apply for funding, of course). This is my research, my career, my life. Imposter syndrome, be gone.

Icy regolith up close.

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