Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Juno's Journey to Jupiter

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and the planet most responsible for our current planetary orbits and orders. I once coded a model of our solar system that included and then removed Jupiter, and what a difference! Jupiter keeps everyone in line. My favorite feature of Jupiter is its colorful cloudy atmosphere with huge, long-lasting storms. Seven space missions over the course of 43 years thus far have contributed to our knowledge of this gas giant.

Nearly 5 years ago: August 3, 2011. I was on the guest list for the Juno launch to Jupiter on a ULA Atlas V rocket out of Cape Canaveral. As local planetary scientists and members of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Science, my graduate advisor Josh and I were invited to participate despite having no direct connection to the mission. I do love living in Florida!

The festivities began with an evening welcome reception. Visitors from all over joined in to mingle and feast. The next day, I enjoyed a tour of Kennedy Space Center. Even though I had toured KSC facilities before, it's always fun to see the new happenings!

The first stop was the International Space Station Processing Facility. It's a large high bay of ISS module pieces, similar to the ISS training mock-up displays that I once saw at Johnson Space Center, but larger. We saw one of the Italian Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules named Raffaello, a docking hub, and a payload canister the same size as the space shuttle payload bay. There was also an early mock-up of the Boeing crew capsule, the CST-100 Starliner.

Raffaello - August 4, 2011

An early Starliner mock-up - August 4, 2011

The next stop was the Vehicle Assembly Building. It doesn't matter how many times I've been in the VAB, its sheer massiveness takes my breath away each time. Parked inside, I was so excited to see space shuttle orbiter Discovery, slightly disassembled, done with its space-flying lifetime and preparing to be a museum piece at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Dulles. Seeing it up close and uncovered was amazing! But I almost teared up, because seeing a retired space shuttle like that is heartbreaking.

Retired Discovery in the VAB - August 4, 2011

Finally, the tour bus took us to the Air Force Station side of Cape Canaveral to the Atlas V rocket sitting on the launch pad with the Juno spacecraft tucked inside, waiting to be launched. I've never been that close to an active rocket. It was really cool! We went around the back first, then after the ULA safety officials deemed it okay, we drove around to the front. It's remarkable how little structure there was for the rocket compared to the huge rotating service structure that used to surround the space shuttles on the pad, which is what I was most used to seeing at the time. In comparison, the Atlas V looks so simple and uncluttered. It was beautiful!

Atlas V on the pad - August 4, 2011

Posing with the rocket - August 4, 2011

Bright and early on the morning of Friday, August 5, I arrived at the designated hotel to catch the KSC bus. When pulling into the hotel's parking lot looking for a parking spot while trying to get around the buses, I nearly ran over a man picking up his car at the hotel entrance. It was Charlie Bolden, the NASA Administrator!

We were taken to the Operational Support Building II (OSB-II) near the Vehicle Assembly Building to watch the launch from the fifth floor terrace, a location I had never seen a launch from before. Just prior to the morning briefing, I got a chance to meet Charlie Bolden and get a picture with him. He laughed when I apologized about nearly running him over. The briefing was pretty basic, just a general overview of the Juno spacecraft and mission as well as inspirational and good vibe messages of support. The head of the Italian Space Agency was there as well as a lot of other foreign delegates.

Meeting Charlie Bolden - August 5, 2011

After the briefing, we went outside on the terrace to wait. It was so hot out! We sat in the shade when we could, but that only helped a little. After they kept announcing countdown holds because of various problems (a ground helium leak and a boat in the restricted waters), we went back inside to cool off. Once the countdown resumed, we got a good spot at the balcony. I counted down the last ten seconds. It was so cool to see an Atlas V rocket launch from that close! I was surprised that the rocket lifted off so quickly compared to space shuttles. That rocket in particular has a lot of thrust, but the weight of the payload is light so it can get to Jupiter in a reasonable amount of time.

Juno lift-off! - August 5, 2011

Juno on its way to Jupiter - August 5, 2011

Next week, on July 4, 2016, Juno will “arrive” at Jupiter at long last. Congratulations to the Juno mission team, the scientists who are awaiting this data, and the ULA team that launched it safely there!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Impostor Syndrome: When Grad Advisor Relationship Goes Wrong

I’ve just passed a difficult anniversary. Seven years ago, my graduate advisor gave me the curse of science impostor syndrome. A student’s graduate advisor is meant to be a mentor, a trusted authority guiding the young trainee from student to professional. Instead, she crushed me.

Feeling inadequate and an intellectual fraud among superiors is common among women in the sciences. I already had it. But to be told by my advisor that she doesn’t think science motivates me. To be told that she doesn’t think I want to be a research scientist, she thinks I like the idea of being a research scientist. To dismiss my little voice saying, “Yes it does,” and “Yes I do,” as if she could see right through me to my true nature. To be told that I should find a new advisor because I wasn’t as married to research as she was. She devalued me and my chosen career path.

My first graduate advisor is a force to be reckoned with in her subfield. She is well-respected and highly honored. She wins top awards. She’s going to leave a legacy. Someday, someone will name an equation or astrophysical model after her. A widow without children, she was married to her work. She lived and breathed it. Her career defined her life and her life was defined by her career.

I was a student in my mid 20s, passionate about astronomy and space broadly. I’ve never been a specialist, too interested in everything to devote myself to one thing for long. I loved my graduate research, but I also loved so many other things. Since junior year of undergraduate, I’d dedicated myself to the study of our subfield. It was fascinating and challenging, probing the unknown with space telescopes observing the Universe in multiple wavelengths. I learned so much. I spent hours in the lab every day, running models, coding, and plotting (graphs, not schemes). When I wasn’t working on research, I was studying doctoral-level physics textbooks and doing complex homework. I was all in.

But I also had a life. I had no interest in winning the Nobel Prize or scoring a tenured professorship at an Ivy League. I had interests outside of the lab and textbooks. I had a social life. I was converting religions. I wanted to someday marry and have children. The world was open to me. I wanted it all. I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t have it all.

By definition, a graduate research assistantship is half time. Ask any graduate student whether they work 20 hours per week and they’ll laugh at you. I never recorded my hours, but I was much closer to full-time on a regular basis. When times got tough, grad school took over my waking hours. At times I struggled to maintain a healthy balance.

When my graduate advisor ordered me to drop all of my hobbies and work in the lab from early morning to late evening and weekends, I fought back. I know my limits. That kind of schedule would have burned me out quickly. Plus, it wasn’t necessary. There was no deadline to meet or urgency in our work. She simply wanted 100% devotion. Anything less, and I wasn’t worthy. She even scolded me for attending a physics guest lecture outside of our subfield.

At this point, I was done with my graduate coursework, straight As except for one B in quantum mechanics. I had passed the insanely difficult exam that proved I knew my physics. I had been researching this subfield for 4 years. I should have been fairly close to finishing my PhD – just another year or so to write papers, publish, and defend. She insisted that I was 3 years away from finishing, dismissing all my previous work.

I felt trapped. I felt like an indentured servant. I had won a NASA graduate fellowship, my own grant money, but it was tied to her. She reminded me that she had paid my previous years, approximately $20k per year, plus healthcare. Her goal was to train an apprentice, the next generation of her. She expected me to be her mini clone. She even had my post-doc location picked out, a university overseas, as if I should have any say in the matter. I should be grateful and work harder. Why wasn’t I grateful? Why was I avoiding her?

A year prior, before she lost my trust, I confided in her that I had career interests in other areas. She was wise and experienced; I had hoped for advice. Instead, I was reprimanded. I quickly learned that I could not have an honest career discussion with a woman entrusted to guide my young career.

I tried to improve in her eyes. I tried to be a model student researcher. I gave it my best shot. It wasn’t good enough. I was told that I needed to be obsessed with work. I was told that if I had any plans to work beyond our subfield in the future, I needed to find a new advisor. It was her way or the highway.

She asked me why I wanted a Ph.D. I said it was because I love my research. She said no, I love the idea of my research, I love the idea of being a research scientist. Can you imagine telling a 10-year-old girl this? “You don’t really want to be a scientist, little girl, you just think you do. Go pursue a career more suited for you.” I may have been in my mid 20s, but her condescension made me feel like a confused little girl.

I chose the highway. And I never looked back. I found a fantastic graduate advisor at another university. I have a successful career in the space industry spanning multiple disciplines. I’m writing proposals to be a principal investigator in my own research. I’m married with a family. I have hobbies and interests outside of my career. Success is the best revenge.

But she planted doubt in my mind for a long time. Was I really good enough to be a scientist? Was I dedicated enough to succeed? Am I really meant to be a scientist, or do I just like the idea of being a scientist? The question itself is nonsensical because I was a scientist long before I went to school for it. It’s who I am at the core. And yet the doubt persists.

The damage was done. Impostor syndrome is why I tolerated a workplace bully in my new graduate lab, a jealous lab manager who mocked my research progress. Impostor syndrome is why I’m still hung up on the fact that I left my PhD program ABD, despite being just as competent at physics as any physics PhD. Impostor syndrome is why I let colleagues at my first full-time job treat me as if I was fresh-out undergrad instead of respecting my well-educated scientific opinions at the level they deserved. Impostor syndrome is why I still let some academics get to me when they insist that I need to go back to school to finish my PhD in order to be equal to them.

Impostor syndrome still haunts me. I hesitate to take certain risks or pursue certain opportunities because of it. And in the back of my head, a little voice asks, “Do I really want to be a scientist, or do I just like the idea of it? Do I really want to be a space industry analyst, or do I just like the idea of it?” Never mind that I’m living and doing both. I keep fighting it. I’ll likely be fighting it until the end of my career.

The advisor/student relationship is one of the most important factors in a grad school success. If it goes wrong, get out of there – fast! Leaving my NASA fellowship and university was a tough decision, but it was the right thing to do. I’m better off for it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Frank DiBello's Vision for Florida at the National Space Club

“Florida is hot!” That is how Frank DiBello, Space Florida’s President and CEO, started his annual update at today’s National Space Club luncheon. And he’s not kidding. My phone app gave a temperature of 90 degrees as I left the talk this afternoon but my car thermometer read 97 degrees – and it’s not even summer yet! “And not just because of our weather,” he continued. The aerospace market in Florida is hot.

Although technology failed us when he attempt to show this promotional tourism video, he got the point across: space is important to Florida’s past, present, and future.

A lot of Frank’s talking points were familiar: Florida has a talented workforce, space infrastructure, and a great history of achievement. The Cape Canaveral Spaceport (Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station combined) is a jewel of the state. There’s no denying that so many in the space business (such as myself) love working in Florida.

Frank discussed some of Space Florida’s big recent successes: the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) hand-over from NASA to Space Florida, Blue Origin’s decision to launch and manufacture at the Cape, the OneWeb and Airbus decision to open a factory here. So many big news items, so little time to discuss them all in detail!

Frank’s main focus was the future. Ever since 1989 when the state created Florida Space Authority, Space Florida’s predecessor organization, the state’s goal has been to attract and retain space business. Space Florida’s goal is to become a global leader in space, but there is and always will be competition. “The marketplace can and will speak with its feet,” Frank warned, as he has in the past. But joyfully he added, “ And many are speaking with their feet by coming here.”

Frank spoke of his vision for Florida’s spaceport in 2025 (a bit of an arbitrary date, generally meaning “the future”). His vision is to create an independent spaceport authority to handle routine launches and is tailored to handle commerce. Federal institutions such as NASA and the DoD have their charters. But with academic and private sectors, the space industry will grow. He emphasized that this agency may not be Space Florida; it may be a federal, state, or quasi-government agency.

To assist with the evolution of the Cape Canaveral Spaceport, Frank plans to create a Commercial Industry Task Force to assess whether Space Florida is truly achieving the goal they’ve set for being global leader. At this time, he didn't have a lot of details to reveal about this task force, just the general idea that there's work to be done.

Work that needs to be done, for example: space infrastructure is being modernized and continues to be upgraded. Right now, there is a capacity problem in nitrogen and helium pipelines at the Cape. ULA and SpaceX both require use of these pipelines. If one user needs it, another user must wait. Businesses shouldn’t have to wait on their competition. There's also old, outdated infrastructure. Every piece of infrastructure needs to have a function or create revenue, or it will be disposed of.

“Our job as a spaceflight authority is to think outside the fence,” Frank joked. Within the Q&A, he wrapped up by advocating that we support Space Florida’s efforts by advocating for NASA and DoD programs and budgets. It’s hard to do long range planning with short term politics that are questioned every few years.

Frank and I may disagree in regards to the need for NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion for programmatic and political stability, but I agree with his desire for sustainability and long-term planning. Florida has come a long way since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program five years ago and will continue to grow as NASA, DoD, and private industry make long-term plans and continue to do them.

This is how baby Josephine and I do NSC luncheons - in style! - June 14, 2016

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What I Learned Taking a Baby to a Professional Conference (Part 2)

I took 5-month-old Josephine to an informal professional networking event last night and reminded myself that I still had yet to write about our adventures at an out-of-state conference together last week. Rest and catch-up are top priorities after returning from travel. Now I can reflect on the positive and negative of bringing a baby to a professional conference.

Working and playing, as well as we can together.

Community Support

I had a lot of fears about being a working mother after I gave birth to my daughter and it became clear that she was too young to be away from me for long. I worried that I would be seen as less than professional if I brought her with me. I expected negative or inappropriate comments. I would not have been surprised if people had asked me to leave when they saw me with a baby. Babies don't belong in work environments, right?

My fears were the furthest from the truth. Every time I brought my baby, I was welcomed with open arms. Colleagues and new acquaintances loved meeting her and watching her grow. Young women and older men thanked me for bringing her. Only once was I asked not to attend a meeting with her, a rare exception to the warm welcome she's received. She's an instant star no matter where I go. The one downside is that on occasion, colleagues are more interested in talking about her than about business!

The way I saw it, I could either bring my baby with me or stay home, out of sight. Bringing her to one day of the local Space Congress was a test. Taking her on a plane to Colorado, without my husband, for a 3-day conference to the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado was the real deal! How would she behave? How would others react? Would I be able to attend the conference talks at all?

I was overwhelmed with the generosity, encouragement, and support from the conference staff and attendees! From the moment we arrived, others offered to hold her, play with her, give her toys (conference swag), and take care of her. Conference staff made her a special name badge. She attracted conference attendees like a magnet. One man thanked me for bringing her because her sounds during the talks lessened the seriousness of the atmosphere and reminded him of home and humanity.

Baby Genius - All Star!

The Noise

There's no way around it: babies make noise and there's no quieting them. I knew that I would be in and out of talks. I just hoped that I would be in more than out.

I lucked out with a relatively mellow baby. She doesn't cry all that much, but she does have her moments. She wasn't feeling well on Friday afternoon, so I hid in the bathroom for a long time, hoping the thick doors would dampen her screams. But worse, I didn't have my phone or laptop because I couldn't return to the conference ball room with a screaming baby to retrieve them, my feet were hurting me in brand new dress pumps, and there were no restroom chairs, so I sat barefoot on the floor not even knowing the time while she screamed and screamed. Eventually she did calm down and we reemerged. Aside from that outburst, screaming fits were rare.

More common were little baby grunts from learning to crawl and play and “songs” from learning to use her voice. When those got too loud and persistent, I needed to leave the room. Sometimes I would walk with her along the back wall by the door, leaving when she was loud and returning when she had quieted. In and out, in and out. While this certainly is not an ideal way to hear talks, I was able to pick up bits and pieces of conversation this way.

Most of the time, she was quiet enough for me to be in the room. Especially when she napped in my lap! During those periods, I could focus on the speakers and pretend I was attending a conference as usual. Except that I was in the back of the room sitting on the floor next to toys, usually.

Conference swag makes for good toys.

Baby Wearing

I wore my baby in her wrap less often than I expected to. There were times when it made sense, such as during a tour of a nearby company's facilities where we'd be walking a lot. I opted not to bring a stroller to the airport, instead wearing her around the terminal. However, during the conference talks, mostly we were sitting down. I tried sitting with her in my lap, but she got bored quickly. Instead, I laid a baby blanket on the ground and let her play with toys independent of me as much as possible. Outside of talks, she would be passed from person to person so much that it didn't make sense to attach her to me. I'm glad I brought the wrap and I did use it frequently, but she wasn't attached to me at all times.

Baby hanging out on the tour.

Hotel Sleeping

I have difficulty sleeping in a strange place. So, it seems, does my baby. We didn't have our normal routine and sleep aids such as her swing, so sleep didn't come as naturally to her. It was a struggle each night to get her to stay asleep. Usually I succeeded an hour or two after her usual bedtime.

I opted not to bring her crib, instead allowing her to sleep in the king-size bed with me. At home, her crib is right next to our king-sized bed so she spend half the night in her bed and inevitably half the night in ours. Co-sleeping works well for us. I didn't even think twice about keeping her in the bed with me while on travel.

Sleeping on my lap.

Brave, Hero and Supermom

I was called all these things for bringing a baby to a conference. I am none of them. I am simply a working mom who loves my career and loves being with my child. I find it interesting that in our culture, we would see this behavior as something to be praised highly with descriptions such as brave, hero, and supermom. In my opinion, this only points to the need to combine maternity and career for new moms and make what I did common.  

Thanks for bringing me along, mom!