Livin' It categories: Outer Space
Chief Scientist, NASA Physics of the Cosmos Program
What are your favorite aspects of your job? I love the ever-changing landscape of my job. Although I think I would enjoy teaching at a university, there are always new things happening at NASA, like new instruments being built, new missions being launched, new partnership opportunities with other countries, etc. These all bring challenges, but it is a really rich and stimulating environment. Also, occasionally you get to watch a rocket launch, and there isn’t much that is better than that: heart-stopping excitement.
What is the most interesting or unusual experience of your career? Gosh, there have been a LOT of things. I’ll focus on two unusual experiences. One is about six years ago when, during a conference in Cambridge, UK, there was a half-day break and I ended up “punting” on the river there. I was in a boat with several senior astrophysicists and a few junior folks. We ended up having to carry the boat up over an area with a dam and the head of a major astrophysics group in the UK was shouting at this group of astrophysicists like we were on a football team. It was an amazing experience.
The other experience I’ll highlight is something that has happened a couple times. I bring my daughter to conferences and have her with me at coffee breaks. I recall one time at a high energy astrophysics meeting that I was nervous that maybe people would avoid talking to me or perhaps not talk to me about astrophysics because I had her with me. It turned out to be an amazing networking move (unplanned!!). Several extremely senior people and quite a few notable junior people separated from the crowd and came over to warmly greet my daughter. I ended up having great conversations with all those people. Granted, not everyone came up to me and sure some people maybe did avoid me, but I never noticed. I love having my daughter with me at conferences (even if it does wear me out a bit).
What has surprised you about your career? Is it like you imagined it would be? I grew up in a small town where everyone talked to everyone else and I never imagined that this habit would serve me well later in life. I have found my willingness to communicate directly with ALL kinds of people, regardless of their job title and their rank in an organization, to be a huge benefit to me in the work I do. Sure, knowing the astrophysics is important, but there are some personality traits that really help me in my career and I think help in the field that I wouldn’t have guessed were so important.
I also had NO idea there would be so much international travel and that the field of astrophysics was so incredibly international. There have been a couple moments over the years when I was able to get a direct perspective from colleagues in another country that wasn’t filtered through the media during some time of political crisis. I think science does provide a really important less-political mode of communication across international and cultural boundaries.
What are the most difficult challenges of your work? There is a bit too much of it. I am trying to be a mother, maintain a demanding programmatic NASA job, a research group, and be a supportive spouse to my husband who has a demanding NASA career as well. It is ALL wonderful stuff (of course, there are low points occasionally) but it makes it hard to do things like socialize and exercise. I think we are pulling it off. I have managed to maintain my fitness (swimming, weight lifting, occasional running), my husband rides horses, we have a couple babysitters on-call for an occasional date night, luckily I can text my mother, mother-in-law, and siblings, and somehow we spend time with our daughter. There are other things I would like to do, but you reach the 24-hours-in-a-day problem pretty quickly. We have a good life, just a super-full one.
What is a typical day like at your job? My days tend to be very different Some days I will have meetings most of the day, which will vary from meetings with postdocs and students in my research group to talk about progress on analyzing X-ray data sets on neutron stars and black holes, to maybe a telecon with NASA headquarters where we are discussing budgets and activities in the program (these are meetings where I need to be able to say why we need a certain set of resources to accomplish a particular set of scientific/technical goals), to an internal meeting with the program office or my mission team to go over details of how we are doing various projects. Other days, however, I am not even in my office. I recently traveled to France to attend a science meeting, one of our dark energy missions, to Florida to interact with scientists about future gravitational wave missions, and back to France, ironically, to work with a group of Japanese scientists (we go to Japan too!) on an upcoming X-ray astronomy mission. And some days I leave early to take my daughter to a swim lesson and then get back online in the evening.
What do you like to do outside of work? My family is super-important to me. Even though I don’t see my brother, sister, brother-in-law, and their families very often, I am in frequent contact. I have traveled with my mother-in-law and daughter to conferences, which some people think is crazy, but I think we have learned to make family-conference trips work. My daughter and my dog (who is our “first daughter”) are important figures in our lives and activities tend to center around them.
I do love to read. My husband and I share this value and have a “there can not be too many books” mentality. We also let our daughter have tons of books and we are working on a library in our house.
I have advanced scuba diving certification and rescue diver certification. My husband is also an enthusiastic scuba diver. We haven’t gone diving quite as much since our daughter was born, but we have made a few trips and we love it.
I love to swim and to run. My real passion is soccer, but in the US, there are not so many adult women leagues, so I’ve re-channeled my interest to triathlons. I have done a triathlon every summer for the last six years and recently got my bike outfitted with clips so I can “clip in.” I do a weight-lifting class twice per week and meet with my trainer once per week. I have three astrophysicist/engineering women who are my swim buddies: we meet up on Wednesday mornings to swim and we have discussed X-ray binaries and cryogenic detectors in the locker room. I like to run in races like the Baltimore marathon relay (where four people do the marathon–I am bored by distances much greater than ten miles).
I enjoy singing and have this crazy idea that if my life ever calms down I’ll join a choir. Right now, I’m taking voice lessons with the music director at the church I attend occasionally. I recently sang a solo in front of a group of people and don’t recall being so nervous in my life.
Who are YOUR role models? My mother, definitely. She is a full-time juvenile judge with three children and I have valued her perspective on the kid-and-career, particularly as the judiciary was incredibly male-dominated when she started out.
Bio: Ann was first inspired to pursue her career when her mother suggested that she research Stephen Hawking for a high school report. She had always been proficient at math and science, but her glimpse into Hawking’s work was a turning point–she was fascinated that he could spend his life contemplating the nature of space-time. The second turning point, that cemented the decision, was a summer camp. She was able to try out data analysis and see what the people who worked in astrophysics were like. Ann went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in physics and math from Drake University, and then a master’s degree and doctorate degree in astrophysics from Penn State University.
As chief scientist of NASA’s high energy astrophysics and cosmology program, Ann interacts with a lot of scientists from different disciplines, budget and administrative, university collaborators who come from all over the world, as well as instrument scientist and engineers who build technology. Therefore, for her work, willingness to approach strangers to talk, communicating well, courage under pressure, as well as good scientific and technical skills are all important. She works in her office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, or sometimes at home or in a coffee shop. She also takes about ten significant work trips a year, so she has gotten used to working on trains (she loves working on trains!) and planes also.
Some of Ann’s recent goals are to win some new proposals to fund her research group and to work on collaborations with various parties. She has been having discussions with people who do Galactic X-ray binary work, since she does extra-galactic binary work herself. She also wanted to publish data-sets from the recently-launched NuSTAR hard X-ray mission and has submitted two new papers! Some fun facts about Ann: She’s pretty good at public speaking–a pretty useful talent to have! She can also out-lift almost everyone on the squat track in weight lifting class (including some of the guys!).